Skull and Shackles

Posted by Jennifer

“Poor soul,” Feruzi said for probably the third time as she arranged Owlbear’s corpse on the beach and began looking for a good place to dig. The words were inadequate, but what could be adequate to sum up the life of a man of ferocious strength who was yet too simple to defend himself? This seemed as good a time as any to bury the man; the early morning heat was not yet stifling and almost everyone was still resting from their exertions. They would no doubt help if she asked them, but this felt like something she should do herself. After some deliberation she selected a shady spot near the base of a coconut palm. The grave would need to be deep so the tree-dwelling crabs would not disturb his final rest. Nothing to do but start digging.

“I must confess, I didn’t know him. Will you honor me, and him, by telling me about him?” a hesitant voice asked. Feruzi looked up to see Leila standing nearby, looking anxious as she always did.

“Feruzi knew little herself—perhaps there was little to know. He was a simple creature, a man with a boy’s mind, innocent even of the cruelties he inflicted himself.” She looked down at the ground and scowled. “It is the fate of many such to be ill-used by those of greater wit and less compassion.”

Leila nodded. “Whenever I think I have found the lowest depths of man’s evil, I see there is further down to go. Conchobar told me of your fight with him. Did you feel . . . responsible for his life, after sparing him?”

Feruzi’s scowl deepened. “Responsible? No, Feruzi was not his owner, not his master.”

“I mean, like a life debt . . .”

“Feruzi owes life debt to Chopper only. Perhaps Owlbear might consider himself bound to Feruzi, but there was no true understanding of bonds in the mind of such as him. Feruzi would not have killed him in combat except to save her own life or the life of Chopper, but she cannot make up what the world owes him. It is too much.”

“I see. Is this, then, why his death pains you so?”

“It pains Feruzi, yes. If she cannot make right out of Owlbear’s life, she can at least do right at his death. Chopper may try to assume all the debts of the world, but it is not Feruzi’s way. Perhaps Leila finds that cold.”

“No, not at all. You live by your code and you make the most of the life you have. This is the way of the Rahadoumi as well. We know better than to expect a warm welcome in the afterworld. Perhaps he will have better luck.”

Feruzi smiled faintly. “The measure of right is not how much someone else welcomes it. Even gods, perhaps. Feruzi has enough to do with the troubles of men. Let the gods judge themselves and leave her well alone.”

“We have more in common than I thought.”

Feruzi simply shrugged. “Feruzi should get to digging before the day gets much hotter.”

“Oh. Ah, shall I help?”

“That is for you to say.”

Leila nodded, seemingly to herself. "Then I shall.

“Good.” They worked in silence until the pit was finished, then Feruzi helped Leila over the edge and climbed out herself.

Leila glanced at the shrouded corpse. “My philosophy prevents me from touching him, so I cannot help you with the body.”

Feruzi was taken aback. “It will not make you ill. A corpse is no lovely thing to handle, but they do not bite.”

“I know, it is, well, I expect few outside of Rahadoum have heard of the Yazanite philosophy. I may not touch a man unless he is my husband. And I do not have a husband.” Leila smiled at that, faintly.

“What if Leila bears a male child, then? Is she not to suckle her own babe?”

“Oh, a child, I may touch. A man, I may not. I doubt I will ever have children, though.” Her smile grew wider.

“Foolishness. And corpse is no more a ‘man’ than a child is.”

“Perhaps,” Leila said, faltering slightly. She drew breath to add more, but stopped when she saw Sandara approaching with pretty much everyone else in tow. The Besmaran cleric approached Feruzi as if she had something to say, but faltered when she saw the body and stood silent. Feruzi wiped her forehead and wondered how to handle this.

“Ah, Sandara, would you help me?” she said.

“I thought I’d be in time ter help wit the diggin,” she said awkwardly.

“It was not that entertaining,” Feruzi told her.

“I . . . aye. Least I kin help put ’im in.”

Feruzi gestured toward Owlbear’s feet. “When you are ready.” It was some effort for the two women to move the massive body, but they managed well enough. Ship work would harden the most feeble of women, and they were far from that to begin with. Feruzi made sure he was properly arranged then picked up her shovel and glanced at Sandara, who still was not talking.

“Do you have . . . ceremonies, of some kind?”

Sandara perked up. “Aye, I have. If you druther I dint, thass fine.”

“Go on, better some ceremony than none, and Feruzi does not know them. Always the grandmothers perform them.”

“I’m hardly that, but here goes.” Sandara raised her ebony holy symbol and made a gesture of blessing. “I know Owlbear were a pirate, but I dunno if e thought o hisself that way, but we all have th’ sea in our blood. Some of us hear it. Some of us go mad denyin’ it. Some of us go mad on th’ water, starin’ too long at the horizon, but fer a few’ve us, the pirate’s life makes the sea in our blood sing. An’ I’m sure that was true’ve our shipmate, here. Besmara, ward this grave from undeath, welcome this pirate home. Besmara, we thank ye fer plunder an’ profits, strong winds an’ good tides. An’ if ye turn yer eye from us, if the sea’s be hard and the rations tight, then we batten the hatches and await yer pleasure jist the same.” She knelt down, took a bottle from her pocket, and poured a bit of whiskey into the grave as a sacrament.

“Besmara sounds like a jealous god,” Feruzi remarked. “Well, such a god will hold even Owlbear’s spirit as precious, then.”

“Oh, aye, The Queen’ll welcome i’m wit open arms, an’ no mistake. Fraid thass all there is. Besmara ain’t much on ritual.”

“It was well done,” Feruzi said, taking her shovel and transferring the dirt back into the hole. “I do not think a simple man would wish a complicated sendoff. It would only confuse him.”

“Suren yer right. S’too bad, though, e jist dint deserve this.” Sandara knelt down and began to help, scooping the dirt with her hands.

“At least it cannot happen again. Not on this ship.”

Sandara nodded. “Th’ more I thought ‘bout it, th’ more I agreed wi’ what ye did t’Plugg. Chopper told me ‘bout the brand o’ justice ‘e had in mind, but I still think it was better’n Plugg deserved.”

The shovel bit furiously into the earth as Feruzi released it and glared. “It was not about what Plugg deserved.”

Sandara jumped. “I dint mean . . .”

Feruzi sighed and made a dismissing motion. “Apologies, but Feruzi is not your god. She cannot give men what they deserve. Not Owlbear, and not Plugg. She can only say that to let him go would be monstrous and to torment him in the name of retribution would be worse. Death is quick, clean. This is the right action. If it is unpopular, unwanted, unsatisfying . . . that is all right. Exhaust your ire upon Feruzi, she can take it. But she will take the right action.”

“That’s what I said! I jist dint see it at th’ time, is all.”

Feruzi grinned. “That is why Feruzi acts quickly. Let a wound fester and it can destroy the entire body.”

“Yes,” Leila said suddenly.

“It is all very well to discuss and agree, but sometimes this is a way for people to talk themselves into what they know is wrong. Or for a snake like Plugg to work on their minds. And Feruzi thinks her friends deserve better than that.” They stood for a time, then Sandara and Leila headed further up the beach, lost in their thoughts. Feruzi sat and meditated, letting her mind empty and grow calm. She became aware that someone was standing nearby, and opened her eyes to see Ezikial.

“You wish something?” she asked.

He cleared his throat harshly, as he always did before any sort of personal interaction. “I would just like to say that I am sorry we were not able to save your friend.” Awkwardly, he extended Plugg’s braid. “This trophy is yours by right.”

Feruzi froze in horror. Hopefully, he wouldn’t grasp the nature of her reaction, there was nothing to gain from censuring the poor man. “Feruzi desires no trophies,” she choked out, “but she thanks you for your words. Owlbear is at peace, now.” Ezikial pitched the braid into the sea instead.

Then he pulled his flask from his vest and held it up in toast. “To absent friends,” he almost whispered. Then he upended the flask allowing the full pint of whiskey to pour into the grave at Owlbear’s feet.

After a moment of silence, he nodded to Feruzi and left, to be replaced almost immediately by Reiko and Chopper.

Reiko spoke first. “Ms. Feruzi, I’m sure you don’t like me very much right now, and I do apologize for slapping you. I am glad you saw fit to give Mr. Owlbear a proper funeral.”

“Do not apologize for doing what you believe.”

“Nevertheless, I am sorry. My reaction stemmed from tiredness and strain rather than proper consideration.” Reiko gave an abrupt half-bow and stepped away, leaving Chopper, who looked quite a bit more uncomfortable than usual. He wasn’t smiling at all.

“Well, firstly, I just want to say that I’m not angry at you, Ruse . . .” he faltered a bit as Feruzi crossed her arms and glared. “It wasn’t what I wanted, and I sure didn’t appreciate you just taking matters into your own hands.” He grinned nervously. “I planned to leave Plugg to his fate on this island . . . minus his hands, for good measure, so he couldn’t cause any more harm. It’s probably the same in the end, though. It’s just, if I’m going to be the Captain around here—and Ezikial and Reiko think that’d be best—you need to follow orders. Otherwise there will be problems.”

Feruzi held her glare for a few moments longer, just to make sure he really was finished. Then she rolled her eyes. “Have more care in the orders you give Feruzi, and there will not be problems. Go here, go there, fight this, fight that, it is all proper. Do not change your mind halfway.”

“Fair enough. Let’s get back to the ship, there’s plenty of work to be done.”

Feruzi gave him a sly look. “Aye, Captain.”

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