I dream but rarely, but when I do, I find myself on the deck of the Red Cutlass, just as she sails for the briny bottom. It is always the same blasted memory, working its way into my mind and coming at me in the cold moments of early morning. And on the morning where the rotten business started, it was no different.
In the dream, I stood on the deck, blade and pistol in hand, screaming orders at terrified sailors as cannons thundered at us from both sides. It was a bloody moment and it would only get worse. And who was to blame? That would be me, Captain Absalom Morrow, notorious pirate about to meet his well-deserved end at the bottom of the sea. It was I who learned from an unscrupulous rogue about the Holy Empire's treasure fleet, I who damned the danger as worth the purse we could gain from such an operation, I who led a whole fleet of the Brethren of the Coast to watery ruin.
It was supposed to be a final act of piracy, one more crime of the high seas and we'd have all the gold and lucre we needed for our retirement. A cozy tavern on some cold cliff somewhere, warmed by the firelight. That was what we wanted. But the Holy Empire of the Blessed and Eternal Cross had other ideas. The Holy Navy's Lieutenant Sertorius Sneed, damn his cursed eyes, had heard of our attack. He had Ships of the Line, each a First Rate Man O' War, waiting for us.
And that leads to the end of the dream. I stood on the deck, as broadsides blazed into us and splinters flew like sea spray. I could not smell the salt of the ocean, for the scent of powder and spilled blood overwhelmed it. My ears rang with the cries of the wounded and my crew, echoing louder than cannon fire. And the fear of my doom was replaced by guilt, which washed over me like a sickening tide.
And then I woke up. I blinked my eyes, staring at the rocky ceiling of my room, overlooking the grotto and tiny harbor of the Isle of Panchaea. The sea brushed gently against the slick stones below, making my ship, a little steamer aptly named the Flounder, rise and fall like a sleeping man's chest.
The Red Cutlass went to the bottom years ago. I survived, knocked unconscious and tossed into a lifeboat. And then the Scholar Monks of Panchaea found me as a drunk in a wretched alehouse, and offered the old seadog a fine job, watching over their little island. And this I had done, for several years.
I stretched and slipped off of my cot, stepping onto the cold stone floor. I rested a hand on my belly, another stroking the tangled black hair of my beard. There was more flesh on that belly than I remembered, and more gray in the beard. I shook my head. I was a young man no longer. The sooner I realized that, the easier it would go for me.
My quarters were fine enough. I owed the Scholar Monks the shirt on my back, and by the Green God's tangled seaweed beard, you won't find me an ungrateful man. I've served under far too many cruel captains not to respect kindness. I walked past the shelves and pulled forth my garments. A worn redingote the color of dried blood sat easily on my shoulders, followed by a battered tricorne. I had worn them for years on the many oceans of the Oddest Sea, and they had not failed me yet. I sat down in the chair, near the only table in my chambers, and reached for the tankard of grog.
Many a fine rum and vintage I'd sampled, and the kind that the Scholar Monks had, taken from the little village down the hill from their monastery, did not rank with the best. In fact, I'd not have used the stuff to clean the scuppers from my flagship, back when I was in my prime. But beggars can't be choosers, by thunder. And now, I was like enough to a beggar indeed.
I grabbed a clay mug from the floor and set it down. I reached to fill it, when a rustle of feathers caught my eye. I turned around to see Hatch, the parrot kept by the Scholar Monks, flutter into the room and land on the chair across from me. Hatch cocked his head. He was a scruffy ball of bright red and blue feathers, looking like something a cat might retch up.
"Drinking, Captain Morrow?" he asked, his voice a grating squawk. "In the morning?"
"As fine a time as any, you wretched beaked bilge rat," I replied, filling the mug with sloshing grog. "What does it matter to you?"
"Abbot Hobart wishes for me to help you guard the monastery from Sea Gherkins and the like. You cannot guard anything if you are drunk." He wiggled his tail feathers. "Now, I have several notes from the good Abbot about recent events. The Scholar Monks are to begin their annual festival of their founding, and you are required to be in attendance. There will be a presentation of their latest research and—"
"Hellfire," I muttered. I'd rather get a lashing from a cat o'nine than hear them prattle on. But it was my duty, and Abbot Hobart had been far too good to me for me to utter a complaint. "What else?"
"Omrsby Seaborne will be arriving soon. With your breakfast."
Right after Hatch spoke, there was a knock at the door. I smiled to myself as I hauled myself and walked to the wooden door. The dream had left me adrift. Seeing Ormsby would help me get my bearings, as it always did. I pulled open the door and smiled down at the boy, who was struggling to hold a brass platter overflowing with food.
Omrsby Seaborne was perhaps twelve years of age. The lad was an orphan, washed up onto the shore of Panchaea in years past. He had spent his whole life with the scientists, historians and naturalists of the monastery, learning much about the Oddest Sea from them and the monastery's massive libraries, but never its true workings. He was a good boy, and there was nothing that pleased him more than hearing a few tales of the wild seas from an old salt such as myself.
I took the tray from him, holding it up with both hands. "Easy, my boy. Don't want you spilling my breakfast all across my room. Come inside, and we'll see what the kitchens have given us, eh?" I walked to the table, Ormsby close behind.
"It should be a fine breakfast, sir. I was wondering if we could talk of the Neocadian Archipelago and the Greek Polities? I've been reading about them, you see, and they have the most fascinating population of monsters." He was a slight boy, thin as a rope, with dark curly hair and a set of thick spectacles over his bright eyes. He had a freckled face and an upturned nose, and he wore a fine suit, waistcoat and high-collared shirt, as well as breeches and stockings. It was a strange mix of garments, purchased by the monks or gained from the nearby village's charity.
I set down the plate on the table and pulled out a chair for Ormsby. He talked on about hydras and gorgons and such as I shoveled eggs and fried kraken tentacles onto his plate, and poured him a cup of tea. Needless to say, I splashed a little grog inot mine. Ormsby paused his talk of monsters for a sip of honeyed tea, and smiled at Hatch.
"Oh, good morning, Hatch." The boy was polite and kind, and believed everyone in the world was the same. He remind me of a baby sparrow, flitting about its mother's nests, content to sing without realizing that the eyes of the hawk were already on it.
Hatch bowed his feathered head. "Good morning, young Ormsby. It is a pleasure to meet you, as always. But I have business with the abbot. I must go." He let out a final squawk, unfurled his wings, and soared through the open window, up into the gray sky, until he was a bright fleck against the dull steel of the cold morning air.
I had a sip of my tea, the grog burning a line down my throat like I had swallowed a spark. "The Greeks are fine fellows. They've been sailing about the Oddest Sea longer than most, and it seems like each of their islands has some dreadful beastie lurking on it, as I've found out the hard way. They love War, my boy, almost as much as the Norsemen. But they are officious bastards, make no mistake on that. They'll hound you to the ends of the earth, if they think you've managed to insult them." I grabbed a kraken tentacle and tore off half with my teeth. The white flesh tasted buttery and warm, a fine morning's meal. "Why have you been learning about them, anyway?"
"I am interested, that is all." Ormsby shivered a little.
"You wonder if perhaps you are one of the Argives?" I asked. "That strip of cloth you washed up with -- the one with your name on it -- that was no Neocadian weave. And Ormsby is no Neocadian name."
"I know," the boy said. "I do know that, sir. It's just, I want to be sure." He had a spoonful of eggs and chewed slowly, like he was thinking over each bite. "I want to learn everything I can, just to be sure." He swallowed, and changed the subject. "What are your plans for the day?"
"Sail out. Patrol for Gherkins. The slimy green wretches have themselves a new chieftain. Red-Eyed Jinks he calls himself." The Sea Gherkins were murderous little devils, given to picking fights they couldn't win for the sheer joy of it. They are short and ugly, so perhaps a good fight is all they care for. "He could be trouble."
"D-danger?" Ormsby tried to stifle a stammer.
"There's no danger in them, my boy. The monks have given the Flounder a fine set of cannons, and even a puckle gun on the upper deck. A show of them, and the Gherkins will clear right off. Me and Hatch will see to it." I slurped up the rest of the tentacle. "You have my solemn word."
And the word of Captain Morrow was enough for Ormsby. "I'll see you for dinner, then?" he asked, standing up. "I'd like to learn more about your adventures in Neocadia. Maybe how you even met some of the monsters." The boy trusted me to keep him safe, same way my crew did, all those years ago. But they knew I was a pirate to the manner born, and the lad did not. "If you don't mind, that is."
I reached out and patted his thin shoulder, nearly knocking him to the ground. "I'd never mind spending a moment in your fine company. Go on to your studies. Leave the ocean to me."
We said our goodbyes, and he headed out. I stood by the window, watching him slip and stumble on his way up the rocky strip of pathway to the tall towers of the monastery behind their white walls. It was a difficult journey for a boy, but he made it, almost every morning, just to hear the yammering of an old captain. He did not know the harshness of the world, and I hoped he would never find out. But, as usual, hopes are something to crash against the jagged rocks of the world, and all we can do is pray that they don't sink completely.
I drained the tea and grog and reached for the tankard, when Hatch fluttered in through the window. He landed on the rim of the tankard, his little beady eyes glowing like a set of some noblewoman's jewels. "Drinking again, I see? Will you vomit on the Sea Gherkins? Or perhaps fall asleep before their knives?"
"Them Sea Gherkins ain't but a few rafts and a pilfered schooner between the lot of them. I'd sooner be sunk by a manatee than the likes of them." But I stood up, and grabbed my old cutlass and set of flintlock pistols. Hatch swooped onto my shoulder. I walked down the metal stairway, leading from my quarters to the grotto and the Flounder. "But you're right, you flying codfish. Let's set sail, by thunder."
And so we did. But neither I nor the parrot had any idea what we'd find, out there in them waters, and what it would mean for Ormsby, Panchaea, or all of the Oddest Sea.
The Flounder was a fine enough ship, a stout rectangle of solid steel, powered by steel and only dotted with patches of rust. The Scholar Monks had purchased it from the New Atlantis Company, where it used trawl merchant waters as a gunship. It still had the two falconets near the prow, and the puckle gun mounted on the upper deck. I stood on the prow, spyglass in hand, gazing out the sea. Hatch was on the upper deck above me, keeping the Flounder steaming forward, cutting through the calm waters.
I scanned them gray seas, tufted with white like the teeth of some hungry beast, stretching out for miles and ready to swallow the whole blasted world. It wasn't long before I spotted it – the derelict. She lay before us, rocking in the cold waves. The sails of the ship were naught but ragged tatters, and her hull was pitted and scarred. I turned to Hatch.
"There be a ship, wrecked and perhaps sinking, and close by! We must sail to it, and see if any of her crew still live!" I turned back as Hatch went to work, leaping from lever to gear in the little cockpit on the upper deck. The Flounder shifted, and began rolling towards the wreck. Smoke puffed up from the two stacks of the Flounder, leaving a ribbon of black in the sky above us. I'd say one thing for Hatch – that bird knew how to navigate.
Soon enough, we reached the ship. I used the spyglass to scan her deck and found not a soul still breathing, though many a body lay curled up on the wood. The Pearl was her name, written in golden script along the hull, and she seemed a fine enough galleon. A merchant vessel perhaps, though I did not know what fate had befallen it.
We came along side, and Hatch extended the gangplank. It fell with a clatter on the deck of the Pearl. I walked over to it and hopped aboard, stepping gingerly on the battered deck. I neared one of the corpses, some poor seaman now on his way to the warm waters of Fiddler's Green, and looked at the bloody hole in his chest, big enough to press a finger through.
Hatch perched on the railing of the Flounder, bobbing back and forth. "Gherkins?" he asked.
"Not their work." I looked up at the next sailor. His dried blood was sprayed across the deck, along with his shattered limbs. If I gathered all the pieces together, it seemed like it wouldn't be enough to rebuild a man. "Cannon fire did that. The Gherkins haven't a single three-pound gun." I didn't say what both I and the parrot were thinking – if the Gherkins weren't behind this, then who in the Green God's name was?
I moved down the deck, heading to the wheel. One poor fellow in a blue cloak had lashed himself to the wheel, one arm tucked close to his chest, like he was holding onto his own child before a barrage of musketry. I pulled the cutlass from my belt and hacked off the ropes in a single, swift slash.
The corpse thudded to the deck. His milky eyes stared up at the sky, seeing nothing. He had a neat gray beard and thick eyebrows. I pulled aside his arm and saw what he held. It was a book, bound in rust red leather. I pulled his fingers from the cover. They felt like they was made of wood, and it was not an easy task. But this fellow had died for the book. It was worth at least a quick look inside.
I pulled it open. The writing was like nothing I had ever seen. Some letters was just odd lines, thrown together at random. Others were pictures, of men and birds in strict profile. If I had drunk an ocean's worth of rum, and then bashed myself over the head with an oar a few times, I might make such scrawling.
Hatch settled onto my shoulder and peaked down. He cocked his head. "What is it?" he demanded. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know, you chattering albatross," I said. "But I may know a lad who does."
We went back to the Flounder, and I spun her around and sent us steaming back to Panchaea. Hatch put the steam engines through their paces, doubling our speed. For some reason, neither of us wanted to linger in those waters. We left the Pearl behind. I stood on the deck, watching the ship get swallowed up by the mist, embraced in them cold curtains until it was gone, like it had never set sail at all.
After docking in the grotto, I took the book with the rust red covers, and headed up the rocky path to the monastery. I passed the open gate and stepped into the courtyard. Scholar Monks wandered across the cobblestones, their long cassocks dragging like women's skirts across the ground. I pulled aside a bony monk, gripping his thin arm.
"Where's the lad at, eh?" I asked. "Young Ormsby Seaborne?"
He stared at me like I was some cursed beast, which had dragged itself out of the sea and was crawling up the beach. "He is currently engaged in his studies with Brother Noster, in the gardens. I daresay the boy has troublesome fantasies enough, without you filling his head with your freebooter nonsense."
"Not nonsense, your holiness," I replied, letting him go. "It's the wisdom of the sea, and the Green God won't smile on any who don't know it!" I turned away from him and hurried to the gardens. Abbot Hobart might have welcomed me into the monastery, but some of his holy brothers didn't share his hospitality. I didn't mind. I was born a Redleg, in the floating slum of Sea Shanty Town. If there was one thing I was used to, it was folks thinking I belonged splattered on their boot heels.
I found the gardens and the small cottage in their center. The monks had cultivated a few flowerbeds, which gleamed pale pink and purple in the dull sun. A few bushes of land kelp stood behind them, swaying dark green and crinkly as they towered up into the sky. In the shade of the land kelp, Brother Noster and Ormsby sat on a small stone table, a thick pile of books between them.
Brother Noster was a plump monk with a scraggly little beard, like seaweed clinging to a rock. He was pontificating on some subject, so I stood back and watched him. "We must then ask the question -- how did man arrive in the Oddest Sea? The older races, the Deep Ones and the Merfolk, have records of our arrival, but of the particular origins of our species, they have nothing. Some believe that there are other worlds, attached to our own by certain nautical portals, and entities may occasionally pass between them."
"By St. Lawrence…" Ormsby whispered. "Maybe that's how everything came to be here. They just passed in from other worlds." He reached for one of the books, when he looked up and noticed me. He smiled and sprang up from his table. "Captain Morrow! Hello!"
"Ahoy there, my boy." I held out the book. "I found this in a wreck off the coast of our little isle, clutched in the cold figures of a dead man. Perhaps you might make something of it."
Ormsby flipped through it. "Very strange, sir," he said. "The ink is but recently dried, and yet these letters are from numerous languages. There is cuneiform, Sanskrit, a few runes, and hieroglyphics from the Pharonic regions of the New Nile." His eyes went wide as dinner plates. "I can read some of it at a glance. I've studied ancient languages a great deal, you see, and many of them, while most of the monks only study one in particular. In fact, I think I might be one of the few people in all of the Oddest Sea who can read it at all. "
"It's all a fool's babbling to me." I gave him a grin. "But I thought it might amuse you to work through it." I looked up at Noster. "Is that all right with you?"
"Indeed. Such activity would be good for the boy. A fine pastime, from an unexpected source."
I laughed. "Well, I rarely do what is expected me. The Green God taught me that, as surely as he taught me to swim." I doffed my battered tricorne to the pair of them and headed out of the garden.
That's all I expected of the book with the rusty covers – that it would provide a boy with a few hours of amusement and activity, and perhaps shed some light on what had happened to the good ship Pearl. But I didn't know the truth, which lay in that book like a shark under calm water.
I returned to my quarters after that, slipping off my coat and tricorne, and lying down in my cot. I closed my eyes and turned about, feeling the fatigue of an old man, too tired for much more than rum and stories. I closed my eyes and I slept. And I dreamed.
Once again, I was back on the deck of the Red Cutlass. She was listening heavily now, blasted by a dozen broadsides from the Holy Empire ships. My bold crewmen crouched near the railing, cutlass, boarding axe and musket held close as the black-suited soldiers of the Holy Empire prepared to board. They'd want us taken alive, the dastards, so they could haul us before a trial, laugh as we danced the gallows jig, and hang our bones up as a warning to others.
I raised my cutlass. "The Blackcoats come!" I shouted. "Butcher the bilge-suckers! Let them see what it is to battle free men, who sail under no master but the black banner of King Death!" By God, I did hate the likes of the Blackcoats, and all who bow to the tyranny of cruel and wealthy men. But all the hate in the world would not help us on that black day.
Onwards the Blackcoats came, muskets flashing as they charged across the gangplank, more swinging aboard from grappling hooks set in the rigging. My crew met them, and gunfire and bloodshed spilled across the length of the Red Cutlass. I knew from the start that it was a fool's battle, that the Blackcoats would swarm us from all sides, their cannons still thundering away at us as they took the deck. I heard the main mast go, splintering with a terrible crack like the world itself had been torn asunder.
A Blackcoat ran to me, an officer by the silver stripes on his cuff, long sword in hand. I raised my cutlass and our blades clashes. "Surrender, sea dog!" he snarled. "Lieutenant Sneed wants you alive!"
"He'll find my cutlass buried in his villain's chest!" I roared, as I pulled back my cutlass.
"The abbot wants to see you." The Blackcoat was speaking in squawks. And he had a beak, and scraggly bright feathers, and he weren't no Blackcoat at all. I blinked and looked up at Hatch, who was perched on the mountain of my chest. I sat up, and he fluttered backwards, squeaking indignantly.
I looked out the window. The gray sky had faded into a misty darkness. I could hear the ocean roar. The calm waters would not remain that way for long. I sighed as I stood up, and glared down at Hatch. "And what in blazes would Abbot Hobart want me for, at this hour of the evening?"
"It is important! Everyone will be there!" Hatch leaned forward. "It has to do with the book."
"Aye." I reached for my coat and hat. "And I suppose they'll want my advice on it." I paused to get my sword and brace of pistols. It felt strange to be walking about with them, and I had learned well the necessity of being prepared. I gripped the handle, my fingers working over the familiar curved steel, and followed Hatch out of my quarters.
It started to rain as I marched up the stone pathway to the monastery walls. The black rocks became slick and treacherous, while the ocean roared below them. But all I thought on was the book. What secrets were nestled between those rusty colors? What in the Green God's name had I got poor Ormsby into? There was no use in worrying. I bent my head and trudged against the driving rain, heading up to the monastery.
Hatch brought me to the main chapel, and he had not lied about the importance of the meeting. All of the local headmen sat about in the palaver, reclining on wooden chairs before the altar. Abbot Hobart sat in the middle, next to young Ormsby, who still clutched the book. The abbot was a frail fellow, his beard a wispy mist below his chin. He tired, kind eyes turned to me, and he nodded once.
I sat down across from him. There were a few other monks, including Brother Fin, an old dolphin that had left the sea to join the scholars in Panchaea. The dolphin had mastered the art of swimming through air like it was water, and he floated at the side of the abbot. The mayor of Panchaea's little village sat across from him, a portly man in a gray frock coat by the name of Tumberdale. All of them seemed nervous. I wished I had brought a bottle of rum along.
I gave Ormsby a smile. "What's this all about, then?" I asked, as Hatch fluttered out the door. "What's this business with the book?"
"I read through it, sir. It's very short. Most of its maps and coordinates, and I'm still working through those. But I read the important part, and it's quite, well, d-distressing." Ormsby's nervous tremor returned. "It was written by Professor Newton Wolfe, of the university in Grande Canal, the capitol of the Holy Empire of the Blessed Cross."
"An educated fellow, I'll wager. What did he say?"
"Captain, you know the theory about other, um, worlds, other planes of existence, connected to the Oddest Sea? And things coming through? Wolfe discovered one of these things, if that's the right word for it, which came through in the primordial past and has been in a suspended state ever since. It's an immensely powerful being, completely alien to anything we can conceive. Legend has given it a whole library's worth of names, such as the Dreamer in the Depths, Ul'lu the Dreaded, He Who Slumbers, or simply the Sleeper. Professor Wolfe was part of a group of scholars who were entrusted to find out where exactly the Sleeper, well, slept."
"Who employed them?" I wondered.
"The Ancient and Arcane Brotherhood of the Conch," Ormsby explained, carefully reading from the book. "They're a kind of gentleman's association of the Holy Empire."
"Fools, drunks, rogues and rakes!" Brother Noster snorted. "The idle sons of the rich, delving into arcane power for their own amusement! The Conch Club has no idea what they're tampering with!"
"And what do these Conch Club fellows want to do?" I asked. "To this Sleeper?"
"They want to wake it up." Ormsby shook his head. "Professor Wolfe wrote that their leader, some man named Lord Tilden Pembroke, thinks he can control it, and that it will give him dominion over the Oddest Sea. But Wolfe believed that it would destroy everything. He took his research, wrote it down, and tried to escape."
I closed my eyes. "And the poor beggar didn't get far. If the Conch Club have nobles amongst them, they can call on the Holy Navy for support. And if Wolfe's ship was sailing here when they bombarded it, then they'll know it was bound for Panchaea. They'll want that book."
Mayor Tumberdale waved a flabby hand, like he was making an excuse. "Perhaps we should simply hand it over. After all, you must admit that this tale of Sleeping Gods is somewhat fanciful. And it would spare our fair island much trouble. There could be no harm in giving them the maddened scribbling of some aging academic."
But Brother Fin didn't think so. The dolphin's tail slapped the floor, rising up a thick cloud of dust. "I've heard stories," he said, his voice a clicking whisper. "Of those that dwell in the deep darkness of the lower ocean. Tales from the crabs and the sea serpents, from the leviathan and the kraken, of terrors that make even they swim away in terror. The Sleeper is one of those. If it awakens, all will perish. The seas will run red. And Panchaea shall not be spared."
Ormsby raised his hand, like he was a child in a classroom, answering some question. "Excuse me, sirs, but I think I could identify the Sleeper's location, using Professor Wolfe's maps and coordinates. And he marked down some spells that might help close the portal it would come through. Maybe these rituals could save the Oddest Sea." He gave me a quick smile. "Captain Morrow is an experienced sailor. Perhaps he and I, and maybe a few others, could take the Flounder out and put a stop to it." He gave me a quick smile, like he had asked for a quick cruise around the coast.
I removed my tricorne. "My boy, I've not gone to sea in many a year. And I don't think you're ready for dipping much more than a toe in the waters of the Oddest Sea."
"I don't believe that's true, sir." Ormsby bristled and his voice squeaked a little. "I don't mean to offend you, captain, but you are not educated. I'm not certain that you can even read. I've studied the Oddest Sea my entire life—"
"You don't wish to offend me, but you have. Reading about the world in dusty books and scrolls is one thing. Experiencing it is quite another. And sailing with a mere pup on some fool's errand, based on the rambling of a mad professor, is not the kind of voyage I'd wish to undertake." Perhaps it was the lingering guilt from the dream which lent anger to my voice, but I sounded harsher than I wished. I stood up, preparing to take my leave of the learned men. "And as Mayor Tumberdale said, we don't even know if there's truth to the book!"
The cracking of the window put an end to my protests. I turned around to see Hatch lying on the floor, shattered glass and rain water spread around him. The bird reared up and lifted into the air, his wings flapping madly. "Gherkins!" he cried. "An army of them! And Ships of the Line! Men O'War! Behind them, sailing in!"
Abbot Hobart lowered his head. "Then the book is true. The Conch Club has doubtlessly arranged some alliance with the Gherkin. And they want their book."
"They can't have it!" Ormsby cried. "They'll destroy the world with it! Poor Professor Wolfe would have perished for nothing!"
"Men die for nothing, every day, my boy." I walked to the door, pausing to pick up Hatch. The monks, Ormsby and the mayor followed me, as we left the chapel and walked into the rain. Hatch fluttered up from my arms, settling on my shoulder without a word. Together, we reached the gate of the monastery and looked at the sea. The rain streamed down, running in white rivers down the dark rocks of the coast. Lightning flashed in the distance, and I saw what was sailing for Panchaea.
The Sea Gherkins came first, in perhaps a dozen of their flimsy rafts. The green little devils, each perhaps half the size of a man, were packed in tightly, draped in oilskins, clutching boarding pikes, hatchets and a long daggers. The Gherkins were pests, nothing more, and I'd sent dozens of the sniveling wretches to the bottom with ease. But behind them, I saw the tall masts and sails of Men O'War, fine fighting ships of the Holy Empire. They bore the silver cross and on the black background of their empire. I had not seen such an armada in years – not since the raid on the treasure fleet, which ended death for all I called comrade and friend.
I turned to the mayor. "They have not even bothered negotiating. They think of us as unarmed scholars, mewling into our books for a spot of mercy. I need you to rally the militia. Set some cannon up along those walls, and musketeers too. I will buy you time." I started down the rocky path.
"Captain Morrow!" Mayor Tumberdale called after me. "You can't mean to sail against them yourself? My God, man, they outnumber you a thousand times!"
"A thousand slaves to captains and kings against one free man." I looked down at Hatch. "And a parrot. That's fine odds, I'd say."
I started down again without another glance, hearing my heart pound within me like endless cannon fire. I noticed I was being followed, and turned around. It was Ormsby. He still had the cursed red-bounded book tucked under his arm. The boy took another step down the slick stone pathway, and looked up at me. "I'll go with you, sir," he said quickly. "I can help!"
"You'd make a decent cabin lad, my boy. But a poor fighter." I gave him a sad smile. "Leave an old pirate – and a parrot -- to do that. Go and hide in the monastery now, with the monks. And keep that book safe." I turned away, and hurried down the steep path. I didn't look back. My heart was a raging storm, terrified of the coming battle, yearning for a warrior's death, and revenge for my slain crew. Perhaps I'd get all of that, before the night was over.
Within the hour, Hatch and I had ridden the Flounder out of the grotto's harbor and into the writhing sea. The Flounder rocked back and forth in the sea, her sides rising as falling as the smoke stacks belched their contents into the black sky. It was like being on the back of some charging beast, riding straight for a cliff's edge. I stood in the cockpit with Hatch, not bothering with the spyglass as we drew closer.
"There!" I pointed to the line of Sea Gherkin rafts. "Bring us alongside, Hatch! I'll give them a taste of the puckle gun those green-skinned devils won't soon forget!" I looked to the puckle gun, planted in the deck before the cockpit on a swiveling tripod. It was a strange weapon, a large cylinder under the barrel that let it fire again and again, fast as lightning, without being reloaded. And now the Sea Gherkins would face it.
Hatch did as he was told. He danced across the levers and buttons of the cockpit, sending the Flounder zooming to the side. I ran to the puckle gun and grasped the cold bronze handles, leaning forward as we neared the rafts. I saw the Sea Gherkins then. Each one was wrapped in oilskins, clutching their weapons as they paddled in against the rain. I waited as we drew closer, until I could see the endless wrinkles dotting their ugly faces and their large pointed ears, before I reached for the trigger.
The Puckle spat out fat bullets at a thick rate, the cylinder spinning about to load a new round into the barrel after the first was fired. I sent a stream of lead, blazing into the Sea Gherkins. Their flimsy wooden rafts shattered. They dove overboard, squealing as they splashed into the dark water. Gherkins were at home in the waves. It was said they were born there, oozing up from the seafloor in thick clumps, before taking shape and going up to raid and plunder. And now they could return to the water that spawned them.
"Run, you scurvy vermin!" I roared, switching the Puckle gun to a new raft. "Davy Jones calls for your souls! And I'll send them to him, by thunder!" Hatch fired away with one of the bigger guns, mounted in the hull of the Flounder. A crew of a single man and his parrot could hardly fire all the guns the Flounder possessed, but we did our best. The cannons echoed after my Puckle gun, blasting another Sea Gherkin raft. The shot reduced the wood to splinters, and sent Gherkins wheeling through the air, shrieking as they splashed down in the water.
But then their captured schooner, the pride of their miserable fleet, came nearer. It sped towards the fore of the Flounder, catching the storm's wind as it drew closer. I saw Red-Eyed Jinks himself standing on the prow, an oversized boarding pike held in his thick arms. I spun the Puckle gun around to face them, cursing the slowness. It swiveled about, just as they drew close enough to board.
Then Sea Gherkins leapt forward, squealing in delight as they swarmed down onto the deck. I opened fire with the Puckle gun. The heavy bullets carved through the Gherkins, splattering green gore across the deck, but I only vanquished a brace of them before they were too close.
Red-Eyed Jinks himself leapt onto the deck, pointing his pike in my direction. "Gut that pig of a man!" he roared. "Prove the worth of the Gherkins!" He was a pathetic little chieftain, content to stand back while his warriors ran to attack me. Without the Holy Navy behind him, he'd never be so bold.
I stepped back, drawing my cutlass. A Sea Gherkin came forward, dagger in each hand. I bashed his head with the handle of my cutlass and gave him a good kick, sending him flying over the railing. I didn't hear the splash. I struck around, carving a long bloody ruin through the two Gherkins before me, and spinning around to deliver another blow.
A Sea Gherkin hurled his boarding axe past my shoulder. I heard it hum past me, thanking the Green God that it only nicked my shoulder instead of taking off my head. I drew a flintlock and fired, blasting the Gherkin in the chest and sending him to the deck. Another Sea Gherkin leapt on my back, attempting to draw a knife across my throat. He would have too, had not Hatch swooped down and raked him with his talons, giving me time to shake the Gherkin off and toss him overboard.
And so the battle went. It was a nasty little affair, as shipboard battles usually are. The Gherkins slashed my arms and legs, and I kicked and hammered them back with countless blows. Red-Eyed Jinks stood at the prow, watching it all and content to send his men to their deaths, just to make me tired. And tired I was. In my prime, I could have swallowed a gallon of rum, hacked my way through an army of Blackcoats, and still had the energy for tangling with a kraken's tentacles.
But now I stood over the bodies of the Sea Gherkins, the cutlass feeling loose in my hand, and all I wanted was for the fight to finish. There was blood in my sleeve, sticky and warm against my fingers, and I swayed with each step. But Red-Eyed Jinks was the only one left. It was time to finish him.
I took a step towards him. "You cursed little ship's rat," I said. "You've caused trouble enough."
But then I saw the smile in his gleaming red eyes. He pointed upwards. "Oh no, Captain Morrow," he tittered. "Not nearly."
I looked up. One of the Men O'War had pulled alongside us, three decks of guns pointed at the Flounder. A word from that captain, a single blistering broadside, and the Flounder would be naught but scrap, sinking right to the bottom. But no cannon fire came. I saw grappling hooks, whistling down from the deck and striking the railing and bulkheads of the Flounder.
The Blackcoats streamed down, muskets at their sides, bayonets poised. The first Blackcoat on deck caught a pistol round through the throat, and then I drew my cutlass and was on them. I slashed and fought madly, screaming out my rage at the blackguards, as more of them came down. But no sharpshooter buried a rifle round in my skull. No falconet blasted me to bloody rags.
Instead, I caught a musket butt in the chest. The breath left me, and the cutlass tumbled from my hands. Two Blackcoats grabbed my shoulders and hauled me up. Half a dozen bayonets were pointed at my throat. I stared forward, eyes low as more of the Holy Empire's soldiers landed on my ship.
"Captain Morrow!" Hatch squawked as he fluttered up from the cockpit. He came to my aid, bless his feathered heart, but one of the Blackcoats grabbed his wings and held him down.
"Morrow?" I looked up. I recognized the voice. "Captain Absalom Morrow?" He walked through the ranks of the Blackcoats, hands folded. He wore a blue sea cloak, a battered bicorne on his narrow head. He had the same sideburns, though they were frosted with white. But his cold eyes and hooked nose remained, which made him seem like the devil dragged up from Held. I saw the golden epaulettes on his uniform, the medals clanking on his chest.
"Lieutenant Sneed," I replied. He had sunk the Red Cutlass and destroyed my crew, all those years ago.
"Admiral Sneed now," he corrected. "Good Heavens. I did not believe you were still alive."
"It hardly matters, does it, my dear Admiral?" That came from the fellow next to Sneed, who had clambered gingerly down from the rope and stepped daintily onto the deck of the Flounder. He stood next to the Admiral, and the two men were as different as night and day.
This fellow was a fop. He opened a parasol to shield his cream-colored frock coat from the rain, and brushed droplets of water from his golden waistcoat. His silken cravat, powdered periwig and the hanger in his silver scabbard must have taken hours to arrange. He wore a domino mask, marked with pinkish swirls like the inside of a shell. Such a man would have earned nothing but my laughter, for strutting around like a peacock, but there was something in the way his pale hand folded into a fist and the emotionless line of his mouth, which made me long to face a proper ruffian in his stead.
He pointed at me with a thin finger. "Captain Morrow, or whatever your name is, I am Lord Tilden Pembroke, of the Conch Club. Now, my request is wonderful in its simplicity -- you will hand me the red-bound book, or tell me everything you know of its whereabouts, or you will die. Do you understand it, or should I perhaps explain it in greater detail for your simple, nautical mind?"
"Rot in Hell, you skirt-wearing puffin!" I roared. I received a musket butt in the chest for my trouble, knocking the wind out of me. It seemed to bash through my stomach, making even my spine ache.
Lord Pembroke turned away. "What utterly dreary defiance. Gut him, my dear admiral, if you please, and then order your ships to begin bombarding the monastery. We shall interrogate the survivors."
Admiral Sneed drew his saber and marched forward. I looked into the face of the man who had sent everything I cared for to the bottom of the sea. I'd escaped his blade for too long. I suppose it was time for it to finally reach me. But Sneed lowered his eyes, unable to face me, and the sword hung limply in his hand, the blade spattered with rain. I wondered what Sneed thought of serving a dandy like Pembroke.
"Goodbye, Captain Morrow," he said, pulling back the sword. "And Godspeed."
"No! Please, by St. Lawrence, don't harm him!" At first, I thought I must have lost my wits, to hear the bright and clear voice of Ormsby Seaborne on my ship. But there he came, bounding up from the lower decks, scrambling on the rain slick surface, the red-bound book clasped in his arms. "Please! Take it! Just leave him alone!"
Slowly, Pembroke approached him. One arm reached out, swiftly grabbing away the book. The other slapped Ormsby's face, sending the boy sprawling. "That is to teach you haste, my dear child. It must always be observed when dealing with your betters." Lord Pembroke tucked the book under his arm. He looked back at Admiral Sneed and Red-Eyed Jinks. "Come. We have business elsewhere."
Red-Eyed Jinks gripped his pike close, like it was his beloved. "Let me run the captain through!" he snarled. "Let me spill his blood!"
"We don't have time for your tiresome little vengeance. You and your Gherkins will go with us. We might need you later. And kindly stay downwind, if you will." Pembroke didn't give us a backwards glance as he walked to the grappling hooks and took hold of the line. It wasn't even like we was beneath his notice. It was more like weren't present at all, and he was the only fellow in the world, going about his business with only distractions to bother him.
They lifted Pembroke back on to his ship, and then Jinks leapt off the rail and back onto his schooner. The two fellows holding me let me drop, and I fell to my knees. Ormsby ran to my side, though I'd little urge to look at him. I stared at the deck, my failure burning away at me like a brand on my heart. The other Blackcoats followed Lord Pembroke up the lines, vanishing like fallen drops of rain in the clear morning after a storm. Admiral Sneed was the last to go. He turned around and stared at me.
"Captain Morrow," he said. "You are still wanted for the high crimes of piracy and—"
"And your new master couldn't care less, now can he?" I glared up at him. "So go back to licking his boots and leave me in peace, you uniformed puppet!"
Sneed turned around and left my ship, leaving me, Ormsby and Hatch alone. Ormsby offered me his hand and I stared at it. "You saved my life, my boy," I said. "But perhaps at the cost of the whole world. If you had heeded my words, and stayed safely in the monastery, then Pembroke wouldn't have gotten his snuff-stained hands on the book!"
"He, um, didn't, sir." Ormsby reached into his coat. He drew out another book, one with green covers. "I switched their contents, with a penknife and some glue from the workshop. I grabbed them, and a guide to needlepoint, on the way down to the grotto, and then hopped aboard the Flounder as she roared out, and well, stowed away." He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, sir."
I took the book from his hands and flipped through it. There was the same scrawling in a dozen odd lingos. "Lord Pembroke won't be happy when he finds out the truth. He don't strike me as the type of man that likes reading about needlepoint." I turned around. The Holy Navy ships were sailing away, leaving us behind. Pembroke had not checked the book, the overconfident overdressed rat. I was in no mood to correct his mistake.
"But if I didn't give him the false book, he would have killed you, captain! And I can't let that happen!" I looked down at Ormsby. His eyes were wide and frightened and his face was pale, streaked with rain water. He was out of his depths, sailing in uncharted waters that he had never heard of in his countless books.
I patted his shoulder. "I'm an old salt, my boy. Your life's worth more than mine. But it was a clever ruse, I'll give you that. Aye, there are few cleverer than you, on all the storm-tossed seas." I looked down at Hatch, who had scrambled to his feet. "Turn us about."
As the parrot scrambled up to the cockpit, Ormsby stood next to me. "Captain, I think we'll have to sail out to the ruins listed in this book. Pembroke may hire other scholars, or do the research himself. He might awaken the Sleeper. We have to ensure that doesn't happen."
"I'm an old man and you are but a wee shaver, more suitable to schoolbooks than the high seas. What chance we do we have?"
"You're a hero, sir." He said the words at a whisper, and I knew he believed in them, as sure as a sailor believes his trusted compass. "You can do anything. And I know you can accomplish this."
And maybe it was that I was tired and had no desire for an argument with the boy. Maybe it was because I knew that there was no one else for the task. And maybe it was even because I didn't want to let the little fellow down. But whatever the reason, I gave a quick nod.
"Aye," I said. "I suppose I'll have to try."
"We'll go, then?" he asked.
"Together," I replied. "You to read them notes and guide us, and me to keep you safe." I looked over at Hatch. "And the parrot will have to come, much as I regret it. I'll drink myself into the Green God's clammy embrace if he ain't there, keeping watch over me." I called over to Hatch. "That fine by you, my feathered friend?"
Hatch looked up from the levers. He gave a flap of his wings. "I suppose so. You'll need one clear head along, at least."
"We'll need more than that." I looked down at Ormsby. "We'll need a crew. That's what we'll do first. And we'll have to find them fast. Lord Pembroke and the Conch Club won't stay distracted for long."
We sailed back through the chopping waters, to the safety of the grotto. I wanted to turn against this mad fool's plan, to think of one of the thousand reasons why it was doomed to failure, but my mind would not bow to my will. I was already thinking of what fuel to bring, how much shot and powder, and supplies for a long voyage. I was wondering which of my old shipmates still drew breath, which of the Flying Gang would wish to serve again under my banner.
And I was thinking of how good it would be, to set sail again.
We left the next morning, not wanting to waste any of the time Ormsby's gambit had bought us. Hatch arranged for provisioning the ship, and had some lads from the village loaded it up. Ormsby and I said goodbye to Abbot Hobart and the other monks, there in the grotto, with the Flounder ready to sail behind us.
Hobart looked down at Ormsby, who looked very small, wrapped in his coat with his satchel at his side and a few bags behind him, little tricorne held under his arm. No doubt he had the scrap of fabric he was found with, the source of his name, tucked into one of his pockets. He held out his hand. "Abbot Hobart," he said. "I will return. I will pensure that whatever ritual the Conch Club is planning will not happen, and the Sleeper shall remain silent. You have my word and—"
"I know, Ormsby. I know." Abbot Hobart put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "You have been like a son to me, child. To all of us." He looked up at me. "Please, Captain," he said, his voice quiet against the wind of whistling through the grotto. "Bring him back safe."
"I will, Abbot. You have my word on that." I gave him a quick nod, and walked over the gangplank. Hatch sat on my shoulder. For once, the bird was silent. Ormsby followed me, his head bowed, like he wanted to wrap himself up in his coat and burrow away. I thought of the first time I had left home to go upon the wild seas. I was older than him, but not by much. And even though there was little for a Redleg urchin in Sea Shanty Town, I'd felt the same fears that doubtlessly were boiling through him.
So I gave him my best grin as we walked onto the deck, and Hatch began guiding the Flounder out of the grotto. The monks waved back to us, Brother Fin slapping his tail in the air, as we departed. Ormsby waved back. He turned to me, with a hopeful smile. "We'll make it, Captain Morrow, won't we?"
I had not the heart to crush his spirits. "Of course, my boy," I replied. "This be a fine start, to a fine voyage."
I went to join Hatch in the cockpit, leaving Ormsby looking into the distance, watching as we sailed away from the only home he had ever known and into the wild waters of the Oddest Sea.