The union jack flapped in the cool morning breeze as newly commissioned First Lieutenant Thomas Buckley stood on the prow of the Peracles, his pulse racing with anticipation as he watched the last sailors make their way aboard the magnificent ship. His joining of the Royal Navy had been a rather rushed affair, pushed along by a mixture of his own keenness for adventure and his father's influences among the higher powers. As the second eldest son of Lord Samuel Buckley he'd realised early in his adolescence that there would be no title or inheritance for him, but second or not he was still the child of a powerful man. His decision to enlist to serve his country had been met with great enthusiasm by his family. He had easily passed the lieutenant examination, and within a few months his father had pulled some strings and managed to bypass the requirements regarding prior experience on a ship, placing him as the First Lieutenant on one of the fleet's finest.
"Ready to sail, Mr. Buckley?"
Buckley turned to see a young man with short chestnut hair and light blue eyes grinning up at him from the forecastle. "Midshipman Farrow, good morning to you too."
He chuckled as Henry Farrow did a mock salute before straightening and heading towards him. Cousins by marriage, the two men had been friends for as long as they could remember. In their infancy they had run around together on their fathers' grounds, giggling as they chased each other over the fields and plains; as they grew older they trained together, fencing, wrestling, and swimming. That was when the idea of joining the navy had first surfaced. One afternoon when they were both fifteen, as they lay on the short grass drying off after a race, Farrow had looked over and asked, "What do you want to do when you get older?"
"Hmmm?" Buckley had replied. "Well my brother will be getting the title and the property and my sister's getting married in November; I'm not sure what I'll do yet. What about you?"
"I want to go out to sea." Farrow had replied, looked up at the sky with a wistful look on his face. "My father used to tell me stories when I was younger, stories of swordfights and far away islands. I want to see it for myself one day."
"Swordfights and far away islands? Want the life of adventure, do you?"
"Adventure and danger." A smile spread across his face. "My father told me the most exciting thing was when you saw a pirate ship with its colours raised. Raised colours meant they're going to have a battle, he said, and as soon as they were spotted the entire crew would be picking up their weapons, ready to take down the pirates." He had stood up then, shouting out across the rippling surface of the lake, "Enemy colours! All hands to stations!" He gave a small chuckle before turning back toward his companion. "Wouldn't you want that? Captaining your own ship, visiting new places, fighting pirates?"
Buckley laughed at his friend's exuberance, then shrugged. "I don't know, haven't really thought about it before. But let's go, we should be getting back now." And then he had gotten up and they had walked away without another word on the topic.
But the seed had been sown, the idea excited. Several more years passed before a decision about the future had to be made, but then it was only another few months before they both announced their desire to join the Royal Navy. Though not quite as well connected as Lord Buckley, Captain Farrow had put his own illustrious naval career to good use and had been able to get his son a letter of service from the crown, landing him as a volunteer-per-order in a midshipman's position. So now, here they both were, waiting impatiently for the crew to finish boarding before they were off on their first voyage to the Caribbean Islands to protect the British colonies.
"We're finally going, Henry," Buckley said with a smile as Farrow joined him at the side of the ship. He reached out and clapped his friend on the shoulder, just as a voice rang out from behind them.
"Good morning, men."
The two turned.
"Captain Smytheson," Buckley greeted with a nod. The captain of the Peracles, Edward Smytheson, was an imposing figure, with jet black hair and eyes and a tall heavyset battle sculpted physique. He looked over the two new recruits with a raised eyebrow, they seemed deserving enough of their positions. Inexperienced perhaps, but strong, muscular, and well trained. Captain Smytheson's eyes wandered over the midshipman's face and onto that of his new First Lieutenant, who met his steadfast gaze with light hazel eyes.
"Off to your post, sailor" he said tersely, not taking his eyes off Buckley as the other man hastened away. "You, Buckley are you?"
"Have you ever been on a ship before?"
"Yes sir," he lied.
The captain quirked a brow. "I am aware of who your father is, lieutenant." He glanced away to survey the line of sailors taking on the cargo, "I'll give you a few days to get accustomed, then we'll discuss your duties," he said, pausing to shout a few orders at the sailors before adding, "Oh and Buckley," he nodded towards the man's light brown shoulder length hair, "make sure you have your hair tied back in the future. As you will learn, tidiness and order are highly valued on this ship."
Buckley gave a hasty nod before rushing to his cabin to grab a hair ribbon before hurrying down to supervise the loading of the cargo. His life at sea had begun.
* * *
The first few days of the voyage passed in pleasant weather. The sun was shining brightly, the wind blowing nicely, and Buckley took the time to acquaint himself with the ship and the workings of the crew. He'd also tried to acquaint himself with the crew themselves, but the captain had laughed upon finding him in conversation with a sailor and derisively told him that he had "no business fraternising with these lowlifes," before ordering him to another part of the ship. Life at sea wasn't turning out too badly, and Buckley was relieved that the navy hadn't been as difficult as he had feared.
"That's because you're one of the seniors," Farrow scoffed when he brought it up one afternoon during shift. "Well I can't really complain since I'm one of the King's Letter Boys," he told him with a hint of sarcasm in his tone, using the nickname given to men of his rating, "but the sailors have really got it bad. Almost double the shifts and horrible living space, guess we should count our blessings our parentage could get us where we are." Farrow straightened up from where he had been leaning against the side. "I've also got the feeling some of the other midshipman are getting a few extra privileges. Less duty, more rations, that sort of thing. Not sure what's going on yet, but it's definitely something." There was brief pause of contemplation, then his shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "Ah well, it's to be expected, I suppose. He's in charge, he can run the ship how he likes. Listen though, I better get back to work, see you after shift."
Buckley gave a small nod as his friend turned to leave. In the small amount of time he had spent aboard the ship, he too had noticed Smytheson's bias toward people of a higher social class like Buckley and Farrow, as well as his indifference and sometimes even derision towards the common sailors. But nevertheless, he still seemed a good and competent captain.
"Tie him to the mast! I will not tolerate such disregard for order aboard my ship."
The shout pulled Buckley out of his thoughts. He spun around as a commotion broke out in the middle of the deck, racing towards the main mast. A spike of horror pierced his mind as a cry rang out, coupled with the unmistakable sound of a whip against flesh.
He arrived at the scene with a shocked gasp. A sailor was bound to the mast, his shirt ripped open and a length of thick coarse rope looped around his bloody wrists. One of the midshipmen stood behind him, repeatedly bringing down a thick leather whip with a sickening crack across the helpless man's back. The captain watched from the side, his face hard as he observed the brutal punishment. Buckley could only stand and stare as each stroke onto the already welted skin was met with a stripe of blood and a scream of pain. Some disassociated part of his brain wondered if such all poor souls made as much noise as this one.
"And that's twenty lashes."
The midshipman lowered the whip and walked forward, untying the ropes and letting the sailor collapse onto the deck.
"Let that be an example," Buckley heard Smytheson address the crew. "This ship is a vessel of order and discipline. Anyone out of line will be punished." He forced his gaze away from the fallen sailor, looking over to see the captain walking away. He quickly turned and followed.
"Captain Smytheson," he called, catching up to the other man.
The captain twisted around to regard him without slowing his gait. "Is there a problem?"
"No, I just- I was wondering what that sailor's offence was."
"He was late for duty," came the reply.
"Is that all?"
The captain did stop at that. "As I said, order is highly valued on my ship. Dawdling around and missing the start of his shift is not acceptable."
"Missing the start of shift?" Buckley exclaimed. "He deserved twenty lashes for that?"
"An example had to be made, Mr. Buckley." There was a hard edge to the captain's voice. "Discipline is the key to running a crew, any deviation from order must be viciously punished lest the whole ship be lost. You will grow to understand this, it's your job."
"My job, sir?"
"Dealing out punishment is one of the First Lieutenant's duties, of course," he said in a patronisingly docile tone. "I told you I would give you a few days before discussing your role aboard this ship, those few days have passed. I shall expect you in my cabin after duty tonight." And without another word he stalked away, leaving an appalled Buckley in his wake.
The rest of the shift passed uneventfully after the sailor was carried away and tended to. At least, Buckley hoped he was tended to, there were no doctors aboard the ship. The thought that he would soon be the one behind the sailor, wielding the whip, brought a shudder down his spine. He knew Smytheson had a point, punishment was a necessary part of naval life, but he couldn't help but think that twenty lashes had been a little too severe a sentence. It was with a cautious approach that he made his way to the captain's cabin after being relieved.
His knock was met by several minutes of silence before he was invited inside. Pushing open the door, Buckley strode into the cabin and marvelled at the sight. The captain sat behind an intricately carved desk, made from a rich mahogany that must have come from some far away colony. To his right was an exquisitely designed liquor cabinet, its doors open just a sliver so that a few bottles of expensive rum and port were visible. Against the wall was an ornate four-poster bed, complete with a thick downy mattress, deep purple bedspread, and soft silken blankets. The entire room screamed of wealth and extravagance.
"Good evening Mr. Buckley," Smytheson addressed, signing off whatever it was he had been reading and putting it aside. "Take a seat."
Buckley walked over to a vacant chair, sitting down as the captain began to list off his duties. The first few seemed simple enough, supervising various workings of the crew and dealing with a range of paperwork, but Buckley knew what they were getting to.
"And now, we come to discipline," the captain said as he finally came to the end of his list, leaning back in his chair and bringing his fingertips together. "As I said earlier punishment is crucial to the running of this ship. But, since you seem to be prone to giving out undeserved sympathy," he said the last few words with a sneer, "I shall have to continue to deal out the sentences myself for the time being. Though I will expect you to be the one to carry them out." That sentence was punctuated with a pointed glance.
Buckley paused, before conceding, "Yes captain. I understand." After all, Smytheson was the one with experience here, and while Buckley didn't like it right now he would comply.
"Excellent. Now, would you care to join me for dinner?" The captain said, clapping his hands together.
The invitation took Buckley by surprise. "Sir?"
"Yes, Mr. Buckley. I see potential in you. If only we could stamp out that idealist streak, you may make a fine captain one day."
"You really believe so?" Buckley asked, surprised. Only a couple of days on a ship, and he was already being told he may make a good captain?
"Why of course. You are a very worthy man, and the title of naval captain would make a fine addition to your family, would it not?"
Any beginnings of a smile Buckley had been developing faded at that comment. Perhaps Smytheson's favouritism extended deeper than he had thought. "In that case, I would be honoured to join you for dinner," he said with just a hint of scorn in his voice.
The captain didn't appear to notice. "Excellent," he repeated, before standing to call his cabin boy.
Smytheson sent the boy off to fetch two dinners, before sitting once again to wait in silence. Several minuted later the door swung open and the cabin boy walked in with two metal plates, placing them onto the mahogany desk before turning to leave. An idle glance of Buckley's noticed that his portion was noticeably smaller than Smytheson's, which he rather offhandedly put down to rank privileges. The captain, it seemed, was not of the same opinion.
"What," he shouted as his stood up sharply, crossing the room in three strides and grabbing the cabin boy by the collar just as he was reaching toward the door handle, "is this?"
The boy let out a terrified squeak, opening his mouth to speak only to be cut off by another angry roar.
"When I order food for one of my officers, I expect that food to be given to the officer!" He pulled the collar tighter and the petrified boy was almost lifted off the ground as he began to choke. "Don't think I can't tell that you've stolen from his plate! Getting greedy are you? The rations that the navy have allocated not enough, are they?" Abruptly the captain let go, letting the cabin boy drop to the ground, gasping for air. "Get up," he spat, "I'll show you what happens to greedy thieves aboard my ship." He wrenched open the door, and was reaching down to shove the boy through it when an unexpected protest rang out behind him.
Smytheson's head whipped around, his narrowed eyes glaring at the lieutenant.
"I'm sure it's just a mix up in the kitchen," Buckley hastened, grabbing his plate in one hand and hurrying over to help the cabin boy up. "There's no need for concern, I have an early shift tomorrow, so perhaps I should be going now anyway. I'll sort it out with the chef myself." And with that he was out of the room, pulling the bewildered cabin boy with him. Buckley let out a sigh of relief as the door swung shut in the enraged captain's face, waving away the boy's stuttering thankyous before turning and heading away with a grimace. So much for carrying out discipline
"Problem, officer?" The chef said in the way of a greeting as he entered the ship's kitchen.
"Not particularly, though the captain seems to think so." Buckley placed the uneaten plate of food on a wooden bench and pushed it towards the chef. "Apparently my dinner was smaller than it should have been. Probably nothing more than a little uneven serving, but I suppose I had better request a new meal. The captain's gotten it into his head that the cabin boy stole from my plate when bringing my dinner to me."
"Uneven serving?" The chef scoffed, reaching over to take a new plate from a stack. "More likely it was the cabin boy, not surprising given the rations they get."
"Is there something wrong with their rations?"
"Well they're hardly enough to feed a dying cat, let alone a navy seaman for a start." He dipped a deep serving spoon into the large pot and dropped the helping onto the plate, sliding it towards the lieutenant. "But I suppose you officers wouldn't know anything about that. There you go."
Buckley muttered a quick thanks before walking out of the kitchen, a frown gracing his features. Hardly enough rations? He had signed off the cargo himself, there was more than enough for decent rations for everyone. A look of puzzled exasperation briefly crossed his face as he made his way back to his cabin before he dismissed the irregularity and put it down to his lack of ship-board education. He was also very aware that his defence of the cabin boy hadn't earned him any respect in the captain's eyes; it seemed that adjusting to the harsh realities of naval life would prove to be difficult after all.
* * *
As the weeks passed by, Buckley grew to discover just how harsh it was. The inexplicably privileged midshipman Farrow had informed him about became clearly apparent, obviously standing in the crew as the captain's 'special men'. He was fortunate enough to still be on the receiving end of Smytheson's favours, and often found himself heartily thanking his father's connections for sparing him the hard life of an unranked sailor. Rations were indeed ridiculously low and shifts exhaustingly long, the only resting spaces a row of grimy hammocks in the stale dank caverns below deck. Punishment was swift and brutal, the lightest offenders were clapped in leg irons and anyone guilty of more would get the lash. Several times Buckley had found himself with a whip in his hand, trying to block out his victim's cries of pain as he dispassionately carried out his captain's orders. There was no doubt in his mind anymore that Smytheson was a cruel stickler for discipline, and Buckley couldn't help but wonder how the sailors stood for it.
Twenty-four days after leaving port, Buckley was surprised from his post by a cry of "Land ho, prepare to make port!" He ran to the side, glancing once at the island off the port side before spinning around to confront the captain.
"Port? That's not scheduled on this voyage."
"Are you questioning my orders, Mr. Buckley?" Smytheson shot back with a hard glare.
Buckley caught himself, schooling his features before replying, "Of course not sir, just inquiring, is all."
Smytheson paused, eyeing him shrewdly. "I have a personal mission, not revealed to other members of the crew. Now, see to the docking, lieutenant." He commanded sharply, waving Buckley away.
The standard docking procedure was carried out, and just as the sun was beginning to make its way down the other side of the horizon Smytheson left a few basic running orders before disembarking. Having not been given a time to anticipate the captain's return, a skeleton crew was put in place and the rest retired for some well needed rest.
It was while absent-mindedly pacing the deck during nightshift that Buckley noticed them. Two shadowy figures were making their way up the gangplank into the hull of the ship, disappearing from sight to remerge carrying a large wooden crate. The lieutenant silently made his way to the side, observing as the men melted into the darkness, only to come back a few minutes later for another crate. Buckley's brows knotted as watched the scene, whatever was happening it couldn't be legitimate. He stepped back, contemplating his actions. The captain had specifically ordered that no actions aside from standard maintenance were to be taken in his absence, so if he acted he could be accused of insubordination, but if he didn't he could be accused of neglecting his duties. He watched as the men walked off once more, and decided to play it safe.
Calling another lieutenant to take over his post, Buckley made his way down the gangplank and into the town of their unexpected stopover whose name he didn't even know. A few helpful locals pointed the captain's location to a seedy looking bar near the waterfront, its entrance sign too faded to be read in the dim moonlight. He entered, grimacing as the smell of sweat, alcohol, and vomit assaulted his nostrils, and pushed his way through the drunken crowd to the bar bench. A woman stood behind it, in her mid-thirties by the looks of it, her curly red hair tied back and a low-cut cloth dress hanging off her voluptuous frame. She glanced up from the glass she was wiping, took one look at his naval uniform, and jerked her head towards the back of the bar.
"Your mate's in the back."
Buckley gave a quick smile of thanks before forcing himself back into the crowd in the direction she had pointed. He pushed open the back door, only for it to reveal a dingy corridor lined with rooms. Gladly escaping the crowd of intoxicated sailors and scantily clad women, the lieutenant stepped through and was unsurprised to hear the sounds of coupling from behind the closed doors. A sliver of amusement made its way into Buckley's mind as he slowly walked down the corridor, coming to a stop in the middle. It may not be quite what the admiralty had ordered, but it wasn't dangerous and he certainly wasn't stupid enough to interrupt captain in a situation like this. He was just about to turn back, deciding that his question could wait, when a voice caught his attention.
"You make a good offer Captain."
It was a rough, male, and spoken in a strong Spanish accent. It seemed to be coming from the furthest room down the corridor.
"Indeed, I believe you will find the prices satisfactory. Do we have a deal?"
Buckley's eyes widened as he recognised his captain's voice, and he silently made his way down the corridor to the room at the end. A sliver of light shone from under the closed door, brighter than the others. He walked up, listening intently.
"Not yet. You have offered food and tobacco, but what of the rum?"
"I'm not supplying it."
"Then no deal."
"Very well, and rum. Same amount as the others. But the price is raised accordingly."
There were some low sounds of movement, presumably a handshake, then the scraping of a chair against the floor. Buckley quickly ducked into an adjacent empty room as the door swung open and the clunk of heavy boots me this ears. Peering around the doorway he had a brief glance of the man walking past, dark and powerfully built, donning deep blue waistcoat and breeches with a gold sash tied around his waist. The man's footsteps were barely beginning to fade before two more sets of footsteps were heard, walking down the corridor and into through the doorway.
"Business go well?"
Another man was speaking now, in the same accent as the other locals.
"Well men don't just come to my bar for business, why don't I leave you now with your evening's entertainment?"
The door was pulled shut with a click before the footsteps started up again as the owner of the bar made his way back toward the crowd. There was a rustle of clothing from inside the room, then a woman's voice began to purr.
"Navy uniform, eh? British?"
"Royal Navy, sweetheart."
"Well then, Edward, is it?"
A sharp sound of flesh against flesh rang out, followed by a cry of pain.
"That's captain, to you."
There was an unmistakeable cruel edge to Smytheson's voice, but the woman seemed to regain her composure quickly.
"O-of course. Captain. I do love a man with..."
Buckley was already out of the room and down the corridor before he could overhear any more. He pressed his way out of the bar and into the cool night air, walking briskly in the general direction of the port.
The captain was selling off cargo. Well it certainly explained a lot, like the low rations for sailors, the crates of tobacco he had signed off never to be heard of again, and the out of place luxuries of Smytheson's cabin. Buckley pulled himself out of his contemplation as he reached the waterfront, and was about to step onto the gangplank when the sound of footsteps made him pause and double back. Hidden in shadow, he watched in wonder as the two men he had seen earlier continued to make their trips into the Peracles's cargo hold. Just how much was Smytheson selling off? As the two walked off across the port, Buckley hesitated just a second before turning around to follow them.
Sure enough, the cargo was being taken to a smaller ship down the dock. Spanish make, it looked like, though its flag post was bare. The men carried the crate down into the Spanish ship's hull, and just as they were turned to enter Buckley got a brief glimpse of one man face. He was unsurprised to recognise him as one of Smytheson's favoured midshipman.
He emerged from his hiding spot as the two disappeared into the cargo hold to rush back to his own ship, hurrying up the gangplank and into his cabin. He had learned quite enough for one night.
* * *
Smytheson returned to the ship a few days later. After ordering them back on course, his first action was to make an announcement regarding the rum ration.
"There seems to have been a mistake in loading the cargo and a miscalculation in the allocations," he informed the crew tersely. "For the rest of the voyage the rum ration for all sailors and junior officers will be reduced. Dismissed."
Buckley shouldn't have been surprised. That night, Farrow visited him in his cabin to complain, and he couldn't help but let slip what he had overheard.
"That's where all the rations are going?"
Buckley nodded solemnly in reply.
Buckley looked up at his friend sharply. "Oh well? You were just complaining about your rations being reduced because our good captain sold it off and pocketed the money!"
"Well, lack of rum isn't going to kill me. He's the captain, Thomas, he can do what he likes."
"Not sell off navy cargo!"
"He practically owns this ship and its cargo, we can't stop him from selling it if he wants to."
Buckley threw up his hands in exasperation. "You're seen how low the sailors' rations are, most of them are ready to drop dead of exhaustion and starvation at any moment! Are you saying you're not going to do anything about it even though you know what's going on?"
"Do anything? What could I do?" Farrow sighed, lowering his voice. "When we're at sea he's in charge of all of us, and we have to listen to him. Whatever he does we just have to deal with, and pray that we're on his good side." He stood up, heading towards the door of the cabin. "Please Thomas, you've already won his favour, and you're probably going to get your own ship one day. Don't do anything stupid," he said imploringly as that he opened the door and walked out.
Buckley took a deep breath, forcing his anger away. Farrow was right, there wasn't anything he could do. He just had to keep it to himself and go with it. Buckley walked over to his bed and lay down, closing his eyes and resolving to keep the matter buried.
* * *
That resolve was broken one week later.
Buckley had been quietly eating his lunch when he heard the commotion. The first shout cut through the low murmurs of a working crew at mealtime, followed by the sound of flying fists and pained grunts. Leaving his food, Buckley rushed in the direction of the noise, a growing sense of dread in his mind as it lead him to the main mast.
A sailor was being dragged by two officers, kicking and struggling as he shouted out a steady line of insults directed at the captain. Spotting Farrow watching the ordeal from the side, he hurried over to his friend.
Farrow leaned over and murmured softly, "Got sick of the low rations, it seems. Yelled on about unfairness and gave the captain a mile long list of insults and threats."
Buckley watched impassively as the sailor was forced to the mast, one man securing his wrists and the other ripping the shirt off his back. He knew what was coming.
"Mr. Buckley." Turning obediently at the captain's call, he hesitated just a fraction before slowly walking over to take his place behind the bound man. His eyes roamed over the seething sailor as he held out his hand.
"The punishment for insubordination shall be fifty lashes," the cold voice of the captain informed. Buckley felt a handle pressed into his hand and curled his fingers around it without glancing down. "...with the cat."
The lieutenant's head snapped around in surprise. Sure enough, in his hand lay the brutal device, nine braided leather ropes each tipped with a lead weight, equipped to tear through flesh and muscle. He raised it and ran one hand through the leather, feeling it sliding under his fingers. He'd never had to use the cat before.
"If you would begin, Mr. Buckley."
He looked over the man before him, forcing his own self disgust from his mind as he swung the whip in one fluid motion, landing it between the sailor's shoulders.
A muffled grunt rang out as the lead dug into the man's skin, marring his back with a tangle of red welts. The lieutenant ignored it, lashing out again, again, and again. As the flogging continued, the crack of the braids against open wounds and the sounds of a man in agony rang through the ship, but Buckley heard nothing except the rushing of the blood in his temples. He had quickly given up announcing each stroke, though a small part of his brain perfunctorily kept count while the rest was fixed on the checkered mass of welts and trickling blood in front of him. The crew was silent, a devastated audience as the punishment went on.
Thirty-four. Thirty-five. Buckley felt himself beginning to shake, his body protesting against itself as he flayed the man alive. Finally, he flicked his arm one last time, drawing a final ragged scream from a raw throat, before falling still. Buckley thrust the bloodstained whip blindly at the nearest officer before striding forwards. He got out his knife, not bothering to try to undo the bindings before slicing through the rope, unwinding it from where it had dug into the sailor's wrists as he tried to escape the blows. The man slumped against the mast, sliding to the deck as his legs buckled from under him.
Buckley vaguely registered the captain dismissing the crew, his entire attention focused on the limp body before him and the damage that he had inflicted. It was by far the worst punishment he had had to deal out. Taking a deep breath he took a few steps forward and felt Farrow arrive at his side.
"Help me lift him up, we'll take him back to my cabin, I'm off duty."
Farrow nodded, and the two leaned down and picked up the bleeding man, carrying him into the First Lieutenant's quarters. They laid the sailor face down on the narrow bed, where he quickly fell unconscious. Buckley picked up one of his shirts that had been torn previously in the voyage and ripped a shred off of it, using it to gently cleanse the gashes. Farrow left for a few minutes to fetch a bottle of fresh water, which he handed to his friend before leaving once again to return to shift.
Buckley tended to the sailor all during the afternoon, but even under the care his condition worsened. By the time Farrow returned at the conclusion of his shift the man was running a high fever, violent spasms and shivers racking his pale body.
"It's no use, Thomas," Farrow said softly as he watched his friend's frantic attempts to save the convulsing man. "I've talked to the others, no one ever survives a flogging like that. The whip's bitten too deep and he's lost too much blood. Fifty lashes with the cat is death sentence."
Buckley shook his head, refusing to believe it and continuing his ministrations with augmented determination. But even as he struggled against the ailments through the night, he found that Farrow was right. The sailor died before dawn.
With no chaplain onboard, Smytheson initiated the funeral himself the next day. It was a brief, emotionless ceremony, the body was lowered into the sea in the standard seaman's fate to the accompaniment of a few ritual words. After the prayers were finished and the crew dismissed back to duty, Farrow gently walked up to where his friend was standing, staring at the swirling water.
"It's not your fault," he told him softly.
"First man I ever killed," Buckley whispered, "and it's not some pirate or some criminal, it's sailor on my own ship. I don't even know his name."
Farrow put a hand on his right shoulder, squeezing gently. "You didn't kill him, you just did what you had to do. You were only following the captain's orders," he said, letting go and stepping back before walking away.
Just following the captain's orders. Buckley took a deep shuddering breath, feeling a coil of rage begin to unfurl inside him. The captain had killed him, had sentenced a man to death for no offence other than telling the truth about the inequity aboard the ship. Abruptly, Buckley spun around and marched off, anger directing his gait to the captain's cabin.
He interrupted Smytheson during his off duty time, pushing into the opulent living quarters without bothering to knock.
"You killed him."
The captain blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"You knew the flogging was going to kill him, you sentenced that sailor to death!"
Smytheson raised an eyebrow at the furious lieutenant. "I sentenced him what was appropriate for his insubordination. Now Mr. Buckley, I don't recall inviting you-"
"Insubordination? He insulted you!" Buckley shouted, cutting the captain off. "You can't even hear an honest opinion from the men you exploit, you had to kill him!" He took a few steps forward. "I may not know much about how things work here, but I do know that a good captain cares about his crew, as opposed to selling off their rations for his own gain and sentencing to death anyone who wounds their pride!"
The captain froze, the blood draining from his face. "Watch what you say, Mr. Buckley," he hissed, "and what information you pass on."
"Why?" Buckley continued, oblivious to the captain's murderous glare. "Will you have me flogged too?"
Smytheson seemed to compose himself. "Of course not, such an act against a senior officer would destroy the crew's faith. Though," he added, the threat clear in his voice, "if you don't get out of my cabin this instant I may be persuaded to change my mind."
There was a silence in which both men stared their opponent down, then the young lieutenant turned. "Don't think I will let this go," he spat before storming out.
* * *
Buckley was woken from his sleep that night by a hand clamped around his mouth and an arm dragging him onto the cold hard deck. Lashing out with his limbs, he fought to no avail against the three men who grabbed him and forced him up and out of his cabin.
"Found out some things you shouldn't have," came a grunt in his right ear. "Captain wants you out of the way."
Buckley whipped his head around to glare into the face of the same midshipman he had seen transferring the cargo to the Spanish ship, yelling a stifled curse into the man's palm as he felt himself pushed over the side. There were a few terrifying seconds of freefall before he hit the surface, the cold water engulfing his body.
For several moments he was frozen in shock, then the memories of long summers spent splashing through ponds and racing around lakes suddenly kicked in. His body sprang into action, frantically struggling upwards and breaking the surface with a gasping breath of air. Buckley shook the water out of his eyes and brushed the wet hair from his face, squinting in the dim moonlight at the dark shape of the Peracles. At first he swam towards it, trying to keep up, before he realised that his plight was useless.
He should have listened to Farrow, he should have kept quiet about what he knew, but for those few fatal minutes his anger had blinded him. He had acted without thinking, without anticipating the consequences, and now he had been dealt with. He was a dead man if he tried to return.
He didn't know how long he floated there, silently treading water through the night. By the time the first rays of the sun were beginning to peer over the horizon he could feel the cold seeping into every extremity of his body and the fatigue beginning to cramp his limbs. But it wasn't until the bright orb had risen above the line of the ocean, casting its light over the vast ocean, that he saw it.
A ship. Buckley's heart leaped as the outline silhouetted against the sunrise came into view. His spirits soared as it sailed towards him, until the dark shape of the prow was cutting through the water to his left and a rope was thrown over the side, pulling him up and allowing him to collapse onto the deck. Relief flooded his every pore as he realised that he would live.
"Oi, he's wearing a uniform!" The yell brought Buckley out of his exhausted stupor. For the first time his gaze wandered over the ship, taking in the rough clothing of the crew and flagless mast. A gasp of shock escaped his lips as he realised the true nature of his rescuers.
"Captain! Captain Horner! We've got a navy boy!"
There were a set of heavy footsteps before a pair of hands grabbed him and dragged him to his feet. "Royal Navy, eh?" The pirate captain leered at his uniform before turning to face his crew. "It's been a while since we last had a hanging," he shouted. "I think it's time we teach those navy boys a lesson!"
There was a roar of approval as the captain turned back to his captive. "Don't worry, we'll drop you off at the next port with your neck broken!" He laughed coldly.
"Wait!" Buckley shouted hoarsely as the pirate began to drag him across the deck. "I'm not in the navy!"
There was a pause at that. "What kind of fool do you take me for?" The captain sneered.
"Not anymore, anyway." He coughed twice before continuing. "I found out some things I shouldn't, should have kept quiet but I didn't. My captain decided to get rid of me."
The pirate's eyes narrowed. "Is that so?"
Buckley nodded imploringly. "Why else would I be in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night?"
There was a pause as the pirate looked him over, taking in the man before his. His eyes travelled over the powerful frame, the muscular build, and the glittering determination in the hazel eyes. Finally, he stepped back. "You've got a good point there. In that case, I'm prepared to give you a choice, Mr...?"
"Buckley, then. I'm giving a choice to join us.
"Join you?" Buckley exclaimed.
"Yes," the captain replied, leaning forward until he was nose to nose with the other man. "Or we can just drop you back in the ocean, if you'd prefer."
Buckley froze, his heart pounding as he took in the pirate's words. There really wasn't a choice.
He turned away, looking over the deep blue of the water surrounding the ship. "Alright then," he said softly, "I'll join."
Captain Horner gave a toothy grin. "Welcome aboard the Grey Charlotte, Mr. Buckley." He gestured in the direction of the crew living space. "Feel free to settle in."
Buckley turned dazedly in the direction the captain had pointed, his mind racing as he sought to process the change that had just occurred in his life, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of what just happened. But then the captain's voice startled him back to reality.
"And get out of that uniform!"
Buckley couldn't help that wry smile that curled his lips as the shout rang out from behind him. Abruptly he picked up his feet, walking briskly toward his new life.
* * *
In the first few weeks the transition was tough. No longer having the privilege of rank Buckley now had to make do with the life of an average crewman, but he couldn't help but note that it was rather more honest and fair. Being demoted from a senior officer to a common seaman was a jarring experience, instead of giving the orders and supervising from the sidelines he was the now the one performing the exhausting, arduous tasks. But a ship was a ship, he knew what he was doing and as time passed, he got used to it as well. He worked in silence during the day and endured the harsh sleeping conditions at night alongside the other pirates, but he knew that he was far from accepted. He had been taken on, but in the eyes of the crew he was still nothing more than a spoilt little navy boy.
One day, almost a month after he first arrived on the pirate ship, the captain ordered a raid on a passing merchant vessel. It had been simple enough at first, they boarded without too much resistance and quickly subdued the crew while Buckley and a few other men systematically transferred the cargo. With the majority of the crew held at sword point, the attack had come completely unexpected. The previously hidden sailor jumped out at Buckley as he was making his way into the cargo hold to pick up the final load. The clunk of a boot and the flash of metal had been his only warning before the sword swung out at him, but his years of training paid off as he ducked the blade and spun out of range, rushing onto the top deck with the other man in pursuit. He had come unarmed, but in a rapid scan of the situation he spotted a sword thrown down in the earlier surrender. Remembering his many sparring matches with Farrow, he grabbed it and sprang at his opponent, fighting furiously as the adrenaline pumped through his veins. As the combat continued, the man suddenly withdrew, spinning to the side before charging at him.
In the moment Buckley suddenly realised that this was no friendly sparring match, he suddenly saw that it was that man's blood or his, and saw exactly where his life had taken him. In a split-second decision he side stepped the blade, thrusting his own sword forward and spearing the man through the chest. Buckley could feel the eyes watching him as the man froze, before tipping over and falling onto the deck. Slowly he walked forward and reached to pull out the sword, before changing his mind. Instead, he leant down, picking up the man's own sword and unbuckling his sheathe. He placed it around his waist and slipped the sword inside before turning, sparing only a quick glance at the faces staring at him before briskly making his way back to his ship.
It was only later that he realised what exactly had happened that day. On a ship primarily crewed by misfits and offcuts of society, professionally trained and practiced swordsmanship was not a common sight. His fierce fighting had won the crew's respect.
* * *
The months passed quickly after that as Buckley rapidly rose in the ship's esteem. He was finally invited among the crew, spending his evenings drinking with the other men and listening to their wild tales. He even befriended the captain himself, discovering that Horner had lived his whole life on the ship and had inherited his position from his father. His first mate, Mr. Schmarre, was also one of his oldest friends and comrades. Born into a poor family and having spent his childhood living off what he could steal, he'd been picked up by the Grey Charlotte soon after seeing himself on a wanted poster had prompted him to seek a less social career. The rest of the crew had similar tales of woe that had landed them on the pirate ship, tales that Buckley listened to amiably, adding a laugh, eye roll, or answering jibe when appropriate.
He had been accepted officially into the world of piracy, but it wasn't for another year that Buckley came to realise just how far his life had deviated from the course he had been expecting when he first made his decision to go to sea. A French ship protecting one of its Caribbean colonies had come across them, and within minutes they had been swarmed with armed men. They outnumbered their attackers, however, and they had been at an advantage when the man fighting Captain Horner had managed to push him backwards against the side. The captain was a skilled fighter, but trapped in the way he was he had nowhere to go as his opponent launched a rapid attack, eventually sinking his blade into the soft flesh of the pirate's shoulder. Within seconds Buckley was there, slashing his sword across the man's throat before falling to his captain's side. There was a flurry of movement, and Schmarre joined him. Casting a quick glance at the fighting and deeming it safe enough to leave, they lifted the wounded man to his feet and helped him into his cabin.
The captain was in bad shape, with blood flowing freely from the wound on his shoulder and a range of other cuts on his body. He collapsed onto the ground, leaning against the wall..
"Thomas," he croaked, surprising Buckley with his first name. "And Francis." He gulped painfully. "I know I'm done for, I can feel it." The dying captain took a small, wheezing breath. "You're good men both of you. Look after the Charlotte, look after her for me."
The two men watched helplessly as Horner's head lolled to the side and his chest stilled. Schmarre reached forward to close his old friend's eyes while Buckley just stayed still, remembering the last time he had stood in a cabin, looking over the body of a man he had tried to save.
Slipping the lax eyelids shut, Schmarre turned to face the silent Buckley. "Any orders?"
"What?" Buckley asked, his head twisting around to regard the other man.
Schmarre straightened, walking over to him. "You heard him, look after the Charlotte. You're captain now."
Buckley shook his head. "No, he said it to you. You're the first mate, you should-"
But Schmarre cut him off. "We don't have ranks and promotions here like the navy, our captain is just the one man that every member of the crew trusts and respects." He smiled ruefully. "Including me. So, any orders?"
Buckley was speechless. Just one year earlier he had been a bright-eyed idealistic officer of the Royal Navy and a proud upholder of the law, and now he was a rough and dirty member of the same kind of pirate crew that he had set out to capture, a man who spent every minute of his life escaping from the authorities. In so little time the twists and turns of fate had brought him all the way from where he had first stepped onto the deck of the Peracles, eagerly awaiting his upcoming voyage, to where he now stood in the cabin of the Grey Charlotte, processing the words he had never in his youth even remotely though he would hear. Finally, he turned and made his way over to the door, pushing it open against the sounds of the brawl outside.
"Let's go defend our ship, Mr. Schmarre!" He yelled at his first mate before diving back into the fray.
An enthusiastic cry of "Aye, Captain!" rang out behind him as he unsheathed his sword and threw himself into the middle of the fight with a grim smile of determination stretched across his face. His life as a pirate captain had begun.
* * *
* * *
* * *
The pale winter sun cast its weak yellow rays over the ocean, illuminating the sturdy wooden ship from its wide hull to the small man who stood in the crow's nest. Unless there was something to find being a lookout was a cold and boring job, but the fates seemed to be smiling upon the shivering man that afternoon as the outline of another ship appeared on the horizon. The cry of "Company on the starboard side!" snapped the crew to attention and brought the captain rushing onto the deck.
Ten years had changed the man. Dirty blonde hair, bleached by the ocean spray, tumbled down past his shoulders in thick tangles. Dark magenta breeches graced his sea hardened figure, coupled with a cream coloured shirt that lay open to the waist, revealing the thin white scar that stretched from his right shoulder to his left hip. It was several years old now, gained during a skirmish with another pirate ship when the rival captain had taken his unarmed opponent by surprise, slashing his sword across the man's torso and sending him to the deck. But despite the wound he had risen again, a previously concealed pistol in each hand, burying two bullets in his enemy's chest and living to tell the tale. They called him Two-Shot Tuck now, expert swordsman, skilful sharpshooter, and infamous pirate.
The captain of the Grey Charlotte squinted at the approaching ship, just making out a union jack flag. As it gradually grew in his field of vision and the lettering on the hull came into view, he suddenly jumped backwards with a gasp.
The Royal Navy ship continued to sail closer, an ominous shape on the glittering ocean, until it was possible to discern the figures on the deck. The pirate captain's stuttering gaze wandered over each member of the crew, before settling on one man who stood on the prow with his back to the other ship, dressed in a captain's headscarf.
Then the man turned around, and two sets of eyes widened in recognition.
Ten years had changed him too. His skin had been roughened and rugged by the sea air, his long reddish-brown hair was tied back in a regulation pony tail, and on his left cheek was what looked like an old burn, marring the flesh under a bright blue eye. The pirate stared at the familiar face and for a few fleeting moments regret flooded his mind, and he lamented the youthful stupidity and impulsiveness that had split his path from that of a friend with whom he had once been thought of as inseparable. A single word escaped from his lips, barely a whisper.
"What did you say, captain?"
The voice of his first mate pulled him out of his reverie. He forced his eyes away from the other ship, twisting around to look at the man who had spoken. "Nothing. Can we outrun them?"
The first mate shook his head. "Not at this rate."
The captain took a deep, shuddering breath, turning back toward the navy ship. He squeezed his eyes shut, his mind running through a thousand misgivings, alternatives, and outcomes, before he reopened them, his decision made. Whatever choices he had picked, he had chosen his future, and whatever mistakes he had made, they had led him to this life. Now there was nothing more to do but accept it. He was a thief, a murderer, a criminal, but above all he was a captain. Pirate or not, he was responsible for his crew, for all the unfortunate men who had been forced by parentage, poverty, or other circumstances outside of their control into a life of crime and perpetual fleeing from the law. Really, his decision had been made long ago.
"Raise the colours!" He yelled out across the deck, but not before sparing one last glance at his old friend. As their eyes met for the final time, he suddenly found himself back beside the lake on that hot summer day, chatting idly about his future and laughing as he heard the exuberant declaration of a hopeful childhood dream. But then the memory passed, and his face hardened into an expression of grim determination as he took up his sword and turned to face his crew.
"All hands to stations!"