Skull and Shackles

Session 1: Welcome to the Wormwood

Posted by Jennifer

The new day was hazy yet curiously bright, the sun not visible in a sky that seemed to glow of its own accord, one shade from horizon to distant horizon. The cramped cabin which seemed to some combination of crew quarters and brig had only a single tiny porthole, but it was enough to make the two male occupants squint and wince away, still recovering from the unholy mixture of grog and opium they’d swallowed the night before. Feruzi planted her back to the wall and eyed the other female, a tiny creature, although still armed and lacking a signature headache.

The door flew open and the horrible yellow-toothed, emaciated Master Scourge stomped in, his face twisted in a grimace that on second viewing turned out to be a shark smile. He spoke in sickly-sweet tones, belied by the six pirates with various bludgeons arrayed behind him. “Did ye lovely princesses enjoy yer beauty rest, then? The sun be over the yardarm, and it be time to report to the captain!” The smile fell away. “On yer feet, filthy swabs, before Cap’n Harrigan flays yer into sausages and has Fishguts fry yer up for breakfast!”

“Oh, quit yer yellin’,” the other woman snapped, her accent belying her exotic appearance. “I been up.”

Chopper grunted and rolled himself onto his hands and knees, rising slowly and deliberately from there to his feet. “Oof,” was his sole comment. His face slowly took on its usual cheerful, ingratiating expression as he looked around. “Huh,” he said. “Guess I was righter than I thought. They do need a doctor, eh Ruse?” He turned to look at Feruzi, who, as always, responded to the nickname with a blank stare. “So,” he continued, clapping his hands and rubbing the palms briskly, “what are our duties, erm, boatswain? Not swabs. Yeesh.”

“If ye’ll make yer way t’the deck,” Scourge growled, “we’ll sort all o’ that out right quick.”

“Oh. Aye, sir.”

“This would be a simpler matter were you not standing in the doorway,” Feruzi remarked. Scourge’s smile, already more than strained, fled altogether, but he stepped aside, making a florid bow toward the doorway.

The Wormwood proved to be a sizable ship, three-masted, with a fairly sizable crew clustered around the mainmast. Two figures addressed them from the fore deck, one a broad, muscular Garundi man with a shaved head, a long beard extravagantly bound with gold rings, and an eye patch—clearly the Captain—while the other, a younger man in a tailored coat with the front of his head shaved and a long queue behind, fingered a cat-o’-nine-tails. Feruzi followed Chopper and the other two to join what looked like another small group of new recruits among the pirate crew, set apart by their relative cleanliness and unease with the surroundings. Master Scourge climbed the steps to the foredeck to whisper into the younger man’s ear.

Chopper, friendly as always, took about two seconds to size up the other recruits. He made a pleased noise as he recognized one red-haired woman from the Formidably Maid. “Sorry, Miss, I promise, the next rescue will go better,” he remarked. She nodded politely.

The Captain leaned forward, planting his hands on the rail in a way that displayed his extravagant muscles to good effect. “Glad you could join us at last!” he announced in a gravelly voice. “Welcome to the Wormwood! Many thanks for ‘volunteering’ to join my crew. I’m Barnabas Harrigan, Captain Harrigan to you, not that you’ll ever need to address me. I have only one rule—don’t speak to me. I like talk, but I don’t like your talk. Follow that, and we’ll get along fine.” He paused, leaned back, and paced the length of the rail before stopping to look down at the recruits again. “One more thing. Even with you folks, we’re still short-handed, so I aim to keep what crew I have. There’ll be a keelhaulin’ for anyone caught killin’. Mr. Plugg!” the younger man stepped forward smartly. “If you’ll be so kind as to make pirates out of these landlubbers, it’ll save me the effort of tossin’ ’em into the bilges to rot.” Harrigan then sauntered away.

The apparent Mr. Plugg smiled unpleasantly. “I got positions what need fillin’ on this ship,” he announced. “The first goes to whoever can climb to the crow’s nest the fastest.” He indicated the small enclosure at the top of the mainmast for the assistance of the hard-of-thinking.

“What is the first one?” Chopper asked.

“Does it matter?” the tiny woman asked.

“Well, there are jobs, and there are jobs.”

Feruzi shot the tangled ropes a contemptuous look, then leaped into them and began climbing. They somehow managed to be rough and slimy-feeling at the same time, perhaps the tar that coated them in liberal amounts to protect them from wear and weather.

“See?” Chopper said. “Now Ruse has a head start.” He, too, began to climb. The tiny woman followed him, while the fourth man, who had yet to speak, plucked at the cordage in a desultory fashion.

Feruzi estimated she was about halfway to the top when she glanced down. It couldn’t have been more than a glance, but she missed her grip and suddenly found herself scrabbling for a handhold. Her bare foot slid between the ropes, and with the natural grace of a flapping pelican, she fell off, crashing to the deck amidst a roar of hilarity from the watching pirates. Grunting, she forced herself to her feet and glanced upward. Chopper shook his head and continued climbing, reaching the top just ahead of the woman.

“Congratulations,” Mr. Plugg said dryly, not sounding particularly congratulatory. “You’re our new rigger; you and the gnome report directly to me.” He pointed to one of the other set of recruits, a short nonhuman in oddly foppish dress. “Now come on down.”

“Aye, sir,” Chopper called down. The woman slid down the mast with little apparent effort, landing neatly on her feet at the base. Plugg gave Feruzi a nudge with his toe.

“Second test,” he said. “Can you cook?”

“Only if you like your meat raw,” Feruzi told him.

He scowled at her, then turned to look at the thus-far silent man. “What about you?”

“No.”

“What about you?” Plugg demanded of the tiny woman.

“I’ve been aboard enough boats to say that I probably can. Though whether it meets your expectations remains to be seen.”

“Fine. You’re the new cook’s mate. Old Fishguts is pickled in grog often as not, and I’m sick of eating his rubbish. New riggers in the crow’s nest, you’ll be on lookout today. Cook’s mate, to the galley.” Plugg pointed to the fourth man. “You’re a runner, that means you pass messages to all parts of the ship, saves the officers’ quarters. The rest of you, get to swabbing. Do your jobs well, and we won’t have any problems. Otherwise, your education in pirate discipline begins at the Bloody Hour. Get to work!”

Feruzi frowned at Chopper. “So. How does one swab?”

* * *

Reiko made her way down the stairs to the galley. Two massive wooden tables squatted between ranks of cupboards. In the back of the room, a pair of small stoves hunched under seething cauldrons. Scattered over every flat surface was a chaos of pots, knives, and discarded food. A full flock of chickens and several goats wandered freely, contributing to the overall confusion and filth. A fat, short, middle-aged human with a black rooster perched on his shoulder stopped fussing at a stove and looked up, wiping greasy sweat from his face.

“I know th’ new hands missed breakfast, but ye’re just gonna have t’ wait fer dinner.”

“Understood,” Reiko said. “I’m your new assistant.”

“Cook’s mate, eh? Mebbe that Plugg’s had enough o’me after all, wants me t’show yer the ropes so’s ’e can toss me overbode. Board.” The man belched, and Reiko realized he was drunk. Not insensible, but definitely a couple sheets to the wind, at least. “Well, c’mon in, I’ll show ye around. M’name’s Ambrose Kroop, but ye might as well call me Fishguts, errybody does.”

“If you insist, Mr. Kroop.”

“An’ what should I call ye, Miss?”

“My name is Nakayama Reiko. You may call me Reiko.”

“Well, welcome ta th’ Wormwood. ‘Tis poison, this ship, but don’t let anyone hear ye say it aloud. The hull listens, see, and the Cap’n hears it all. Poison the Wormwood is, though, rotten to the core. You’ll not meet a more nasty, sour piece of work than Cap’n Harrigan in all your days at sea, and his crew’s the same, ‘specially the first mate, Mr. Plugg. Vicious little sod, he is. He’d sell his own mother to the butcher for pies, he would, but they leave me alone, mostly. They know I can’t ’arm ’em, and they has to eat regardless.”

“How long have you been on this ship, Mr. Kroop?” Reiko asked, poking among the debris looking for a place to start.

“Three years, now. It ain’t the Lobster’s Armor, but it ain’t the bottom of the Fever Sea, either. Yer job’ll be t’ help me cook fer the crew, an’ sometimes t’catch stuff fer us t’cook. Oh, and sometimes the butcherin’. Ye ain’t afraid o’ butcherin’, are ye?”

Reiko patted her sword, smiling. “Not in the least. I’m not very good at fishing, but I’ll do my best.”

“I just dinna know if ye had a taboo or . . . whatever. I ain’t had a Tian on th’ ship afore.”

“Not at all. We eat meat, same as most. Although, we do prefer it to be unspoiled.”

“Oh, good, good. Anyway, t’day we’re makin’ stew. Let’s get started.”

* * *

Ezikial Hands, now runner aboard the Wormwood, made his way through the middle hold when the readhead he’d seen at the Formidably Maid waved to him from a cubby. There was no one else around, a situation that was sure to change shortly. He stepped toward her, raising an eyebrow to invite confidence.

“Ahoy there,” she said, somewhat nervous. “Thought you’d want this back.” She held out a leather-wrapped bundle, which Ezikial recognized as his pistol, powder, and bullets. “I told the quartermaster that the powder was dangerous, an’ she believed me. Poor thing is superstitious as a Kuru cannibal.”

Ezikial accepted the package and bowed. “Thank you.”

“Sure, what are friends for?”

“Ezikial Hands,” he replied by way of introduction. “Want a swallow?” he asked, extending his pocket flask.

“Black Queen, yes.” The redhead took a hearty swig, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and giving the flask back. “On a pirate ship, it ain’t what ya know, it’s who ya know. Friends got ta help each other out. Enemies just make trouble, and their ain’t any places to hide from trouble on a ship like this, savvy?”

“Sure.”

“I woulda gotten that tall Mwangi woman’s bow, but it’s kinda . . . conspicuous fer me to carry that thing around.”

Ezikial took a swallow himself. “I’m back to work. First day and all . . .”

“Fair enough,” Sandara replied. “Safe travels.”

* * *

The ship’s clock finally rang, signaling the end of the workday. The crew gathered on deck for what was known, aboard ship, as the “Bloody Hour”—dispensation of the day’s accumulated punishments before the evening meal. Reiko joined the crowd, and was somewhat startled when the lanky Mwangi woman passed her some fresh-caught fish. She hid it surreptitiously up her sleeve. Most of the ship’s “officers” were hanging about, Master Scourge being noticeable in his absence. Captain Harrigan turned and bellowed down the hatch.

“Bring him up!”

A few moments later, Master Scourge appeared, dragging a dreadfully skinny young human from belowdecks. He stared around at everyone, his eyes wild, but the crew avoided his gaze. Harrigan gestured toward Mr. Plugg.

“Jakes Magpie,” Plugg announced laconically, “you have confessed to the crime of theft from the quartermaster’s stores. The sentence is a slow keelhauling.”

“Stupid boy,” Ezikial remarked under his breath. Magpie struggled to no avail as Scourge hooked a heavy rope around his waist. Plugg and Scourge heaved the boy over the starboard into the darkening waters, slowly playing out the rope until he dragged along the side of the ship. A desperate prayer to Besmara could be heard before the boy vanished beneath the waves.

“Guess they ain’t that short-handed,” Chopper growled, looking at Plugg’s face, which was alight with relish at the grisly task.

“Hope he’s got strong lungs,” Ezikial added.

“He will gain some scars to impress his future wife,” Feruzi offered. A halfling, barely knee-high on the Mwangi woman, laughed harshly.

“In the next life, maybe.”

Nearly two minutes later, the remains of Jakes Magpie surfaced off the port side. Plugg and Scourge hauled the shredded mass of flesh onto the deck.

“Right. No stealing, then. Message received,” Chopper muttered.

“What a waste,” Ezikial agreed.

“What do you think is going into tomorrow’s stew?” Reiko reflected. Chopper cringed.

“Please don’t.”

“I’ll do what I can,” she said.

Plugg waved over one of the other new recruits. “Cut this up and throw it to the sharks.” Feruzi took a step forward, towering over the shorter officer even from some distance away.

“Did the Captain not discuss a penalty for killing earlier?”

“You’ll find pirates a contrary lot,” Chopper told her. Feruzi lowered her chin to glare.

“Shall we break out the ropes for Mr. Plugg, then?”

Harrigan gave a short barking grunt that might have been a laugh or a snort. “The law is upheld. Let’s eat.” Reiko helped Fishguts distribute the stew while an unusually thin half-orc woman in dark clothes appeared with a bucket and a handful of mugs, bringing a cheer from the more experienced crewmembers. She began ladling out rations of grog. Chopper glanced at her as she walked past, realizing she had a deep, ragged scar across her neck. Apparently she’d survived an attempt at throat-slitting.

“Once you drink this,” the half-orc woman explained, “you’re free to retire for the evening, or carry on up here. But you have to drink it. And you have to be back up here, ready to work, when the dawn bell rings.”

Feruzi frowned at the grog, then held her nose and swallowed it, considering it was likely the least foul water on the ship. Reiko essayed a ladylike sip and grimaced. Chopper accepted his ration, but only stared at it.

“I don’t recall ‘drink the grog’ being on the Captain’s List of Laws,” he commented. The half-orc grinned toothily.

“I think it’s more t’keep us from gettin’ too rowdy, but I’m all for that!” Chopper sampled the swill. “That’s the difference between most ships and pirate ships,” she added. “We’ll give ya more if ya ask for it.”

“I can get another?” Ezikial asked.

“Sure!” the woman said, and scooped more grog for Ezikial. “I like this one.”

“Good vintage,” Chopper said, spluttering a little in his attempts at the grog. He turned, handing the mug to Ezikial, whose own cup was again dry. The half-orc glared.

“Ye’ll get a lashin’!” she hissed.

“I saw that, rigger,” Master Sourge called from the poop deck. “Six lashes on the Bloody Hour.”

“I’ll see if Mr. Plugg’s arm is less painful than that drek.” Feruzi gave him a disgusted look. She considered his life her responsibility, but if he wanted to pick up a few scars, that was his own affair. Scourge shrugged and turned away. Chopper glanced over at the man now drinking his grog.

“Call me Chopper,” he said, extending a hand.

“Ezikial Hands,” the other said, accepting a brief shake. Feruzi walked away, heading for a hammock.

“Who’d you used to be?” Chopper asked. “You know, before you became a pirate.”

“Studying up to be one.”

“Heh. Is there a test?”

Ezikial shrugged. “You?”

“An ‘honest’ sailor. A carpenter and sometime surgeon,” Chopper explained, making a hacking gesture with one hand.

“Ah?”

“Ain’t taken many lives, but limbs . . . more than I care to think on. And here’s the assistant cook,” he added, as Reiko peeked at them. “Chopper,” he repeated his introduction, making a clumsy bow.

“Ezikial.”

Reiko nodded and then looked up at the sky. “It’s interesting, don’t you think.”

Chopper glanced in the direction she was looking. “Could you be a little more specific?”

“The sky, of course. It’s interesting.”

He shrugged. “Well, the stars are good for navigation, certainly. Useful. But . . . interesting?”

“Indeed. It’s so very vast. Much larger than any of us. Yet we always reach for it, even while it surrounds us.”

“A philosopher in your former life, then?” Ezikial asked.

“Perhaps. Nakayama Reiko. You may call me Reiko if you so desire.”

“I’ll take that as a kindness,” Chopper said. “The first bit is a mouthful.”

“And what has you so grumpy, Mr. Hands?” Reiko asked.

“Grumpy?”

“Yes, grumpy. With the scowl on your face, and all.”

“I’m not ‘grumpy’. This is just my face.”

“Condolences,” Chopper smirked. Reiko nodded toward another group of the crew, who were playing at a complex-looking game.

“That’s interesting too, don’t you think?”

“You keep using that word,” Chopper said. “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

“So you’re a comedian. I like you.”

Chopper smiled, somewhat startled at Reiko’s reaction, then gestured off down the deck. “My clumsy friend is called Feruzi. She doesn’t talk much.”

“I noticed,” Reiko said. “But I like her too. She might want to work on her temper a bit, though. She won’t last long on a pirate ship that way.” They glanced at Ezikial, who had withdrawn from the conversation, and noticed him shaking his flask at the red-headed woman.

“That right there,” Chopper said, gesturing toward the redhead, “is the reason I stand here with you now. Never could resist doing something stupid when I see a woman in trouble.”

Reiko shrugged. “That’s not a bad quality, I suppose, but your life might also last longer if you work on that habit.”

“Aye,” Ezikial replied. “Wish I’d had time to pull the trigger before they hit me.”

“The which?” Chopper asked, then shrugged. “I’d drink to that, but . . .”

“Not much of a drinker?” Reiko asked.

“I’ll drink. When it’s my idea.”

“I can’t really argue with that decision,” Reiko said.

“We should meet our fellow sailors, no?” Chopper said, and walked over toward the redhead.

“Well met!” she said. “We were talking about the Master of the Gales. Jack Scrimshaw here thinks that the Master’s been healing the Eye of Abendego.”

“Is it sick, then?” Chopper asked, glad-handing the other members of the small gathering.

“The Eye’s a wound on the world,” said Jack, “and he’s healing it. Good for nature, good for civilization—bad for pirates! Why do you think he keeps what he’s doing so quiet? And the reason he ignores the Cult of the Eye is because he knows he’ll soon be giving the lie to their propehcy of a new god arising from the maelstrom.”

Sandara shook her head slightly. “Thanks to you for tryin’ to help me last night,” she said to Chopper and Ezikial. She turned a bit too quickly and stumbled. Chopper extended a hand to steady her. Reiko grinned.

“You could be her knight in shining armor,” the Tian woman said.

“No thanks needed,” Chopper replied. “Especially considering how it turned out. Still, you’re welcome. Any time.”

“Like tonight,” Sandara said, steadying herself. “Strong, ain’tcha?”

Ezikial shook his head. “Not my first choice of ships, but ship work is ship work. Still . . . the management will take some getting used to.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Reiko agreed. Sandara spat.

“Scourge, that bastard. I’ll show him what for.” She shook her fist at the sky, coming close to punching Chopper in the nose. He sat down and helped her settle in his lap. “I’m not gonna polish his knob just cos he’s an officer. The man’s repusslive.”

“You’ve got a sailor’s mouth, anyway,” Chopper said.

“Damned yeh I do. My Da was a fisherman, same as his Da, prolly goes back as far as there’s been a sea to fish.”

They chatted for some time in a desultory fashion, then headed off for bed.

* * *

The dawn bell rang far too early, and seemingly only seconds later four pirates were at the door to their cabin. The fat man shoved Ezikial in the chest.

“In a hurry?” he sneered.

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