Skull and Shackles

Interlude: The Eagle-Claw

“Good to have you back, Captain.”

Merrill Pegsworthy broke out of his reverie to acknowledge his First Mate with a cheerful grin. “Good to be back, Mistress Loor.” The pause must have alerted her, though, because she eyed his expression closely, unconvinced.

“Somethin’ happen?”

“Oh, no,” he replied, gesturing toward the ship now receding into the distance. “Tatsumi is well set up aboard the Kitsune—”

“The what, now?”

“Oh, some fancy of his, some kind of legendary fox creature, I understand. But she is sound and on her way, as you can see for yourself.” This did not produce the desired response; if anything, Labella grew more uneasy.

“Are ye sure ye had no troubles? We expected ye long afore this, truth be told.”

Pegsworthy essayed a dismissive shrug. “There were some troubles, but they were not ours. Met some likely young folks with a newly-acquired ship; they helped Rickety fend off some sort of giant wasp attack. So, of course we had to wait for him to clear up the mess and launch their ship. Took a couple of days.”

“New pirates, eh? Well, they’ll be in for some schoolin’ if they think they can give us any trouble,” she announced, somewhat to his chagrin.

“I doubt they’d want to, the first mate is Tatsumi’s sister. They seem like nice enough folks.”

“Then the Shackles will swallow ’em whole and spit the bones.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, either. They acquired their ship from that devil’s son, Plugg. You remember him? Harrigan’s Mate.”

Labella spat on the deck. “Not like to forget, me. So he’s dead, then? Good, though I wouldna have minded doin’ the job meself.”

“From the sound of things, you would have had to outrun an arrow to do it, that archer of theirs is a fiend. Never seen anyone shoot so fast in my life, and she killed Plugg herself according to Tatsumi’s sister, spitted him right though his black heart!” He grinned, bemused, causing Mistress Loor no small distress as she looked askance on her Captain’s peculiar new mood. “Must have been quite the sight! Say, Labella, do I still have that Azlanti bow somewhere?”

Labella felt her jaw loosen as her heart seemed to writhe in her chest. “The Eagle-Claw, Captain?”

“That’s the one.”

Her jaw sagged again. “The one ye said ye’d sell t’buy an ISLAND if ye ever decided t’retire, Captain?”

“Yes. Wherever did I put it?”

“The bow that’s worth more than the Bonaventure and everything else aboard her, COMBINED?! THAT bow?!?!”

Something in her tone finally seemed to penetrate whatever cloud Pegsworthy’s brain currently occupied. He glanced at her, his eyes sparking dangerously. “Is there some kind of point to this inquiry, Mistress?”

Labella forced herself into some semblance of composure. No matter how easygoing he was, one did not scream at one’s Captain. Even if he’d clearly lost his mind. Perhaps especially not then. “N-no, Captain.”

“Good. So where did it end up?”

“It’s still locked in yer safe, Captain.” She felt faint. She was going to faint.

“Go fetch it out for me, will you? And have Pinch find me some sort of gift case for it or similar.”

“Besmara save me!” Labella squeaked. The end had come. The Captain was sending her on an errand that meant telling the notoriously ruthless quartermaster that Pegsworthy intended to give away the single most valuable object he’d ever had in his possession. There was no help for it. If she was going to have the hide ripped from her bones she’d rather it happen trying to talk some kind of sense into her beloved Captain. “Captain, ye know I love ye like me own flesh and blood—”

“That’s kind of you to say.” His voice was flat, hard.

“Aye, Captain. And ye know I’ve ne’er disobeyed yer orders, not e’en when I thought ye were lettin’ yer kind and noble heart rule o’er yer sense . . .”

“Yes?”

“So, I’m beggin’ ye, Captain, don’t go givin’ THAT bow to some . . . some . . . strumpet!”

Pegsworthy’s breath hissed between his teeth. “Mistress Loor, I cannot help but think that I must have misheard you just there.” Labella flinched and hid her face with her hands.

“Nay, Captain, an’ it please ye, ye can have me flogged afore the mast, but by Besmara’s tits and nipples there’s such a thing as whores, Captain!” She hunched, shaking, not daring to look at him. There was a long, horrible silence.

“Oh, dear,” Pegsworthy said finally. Labella felt him gently put his hands on her shoulders and turn her to look at him. “Calm yourself. It’s not like that.”

“I’m sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean . . .”

He squeezed her shoulders. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. My mind was wandering and I didn’t explain myself well enough. I’m not looking to . . . um . . .” to her surprise, he faltered and looked slightly embarrassed.

“Get yer buoy bobbed, Captain?” she offered, anxious not to let him get distracted again. His face twisted, caught between horror and humor. He blinked repeatedly then finally frowned, although it was clearly a struggle.

“Yes, all right . . . that . . . what you said, and thank you so very much indeed for putting that image in my head at this moment—”

“Sorry, Captain.”

He massaged his forehead with his fingers and sighed. “It is a bit . . . extravagant of me, yes—”

“A BIT?!”

“Watch it. It is MY bow, Labella, I took it as my share, won it with my own hands and rather more of my own blood than I care to part with. It’s doing no one any good where it is. I . . . I would much rather see it in the hands of someone I believe I can trust, who has the skill to use it for its intended purpose. If I sell it, it’ll just go to some rich merchant or, hah, ‘nobleman’ who’ll put it in a case so he can gloat over it at his drunken parties, and that just wouldn’t be right. It’d be like”—he gave a self-conscious little chuckle—“like throwing away a man because there was an accident and he got himself a bit of a limp. Anyway, I wasn’t planning on retiring just yet.”

Labella was sick with horror. Like the rest of Pegsworthy’s crew she took it as an article of faith that anyone who thought the Captain was less than capable for being minus one leg was an idiot, a poltroon, and the worst kind of blind damn fool. For him to mention it himself, well, that was unthinkable. “Captain, I . . .”

“No, it’s all right, I understand. I’m not angry. Be a good girl and go take care of it for me, would you? It’s been a long day and I’d like to sit down.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

Pegsworthy sighed again as he watched her scurry away. She was right, of course, he was being foolish, and it didn’t help that he’d spent several hours while he waited for the rendezvous in pleasant contemplation of exactly what Labella assumed he was contemplating. Time to put aside unlikely daydreams and focus again on the main chance. Or maybe not so unlikely, considering some of the things he’d heard about Mwangi tribals . . .

STOP that, Merrill Pegsworthy, you old fool. Not old enough, apparently. Not by a long shot. Have you finally forgotten what honor is, that you’d break the only word you still have? If you’re a fool, ADMIT it, so at least you won’t be a blind fool. He’d made an oath to himself years ago, when he’d first stolen the Bonaventure and turned to piracy to support himself and his crew, that no matter what happened he would never, ever lie to himself about what it was he was doing. He would never pretend he was not a killer and a thief, never claim he was a better man because there were some evils he still shied away from committing. It might bring you the love and loyalty of your crew, but you don’t buy your way into the Light by claiming that well, you weren’t as bad as you could have been. You are a pirate because you couldn’t bear to spend the rest of your life saying you were a cripple, so before you go getting all stupid over some woman, Merrill Pegsworthy, remember that SHE is a pirate TOO.

He sat down at his desk and unbuckled the straps holding the wooden peg to the stump of his left leg. It had hurt all day, a weird, phantom tingling that seemed to originate in the part of his flesh that was cut away. Whenever his leg hurt like this he always dreamed that night of being whole, an Eagle Knight, a seacaptain in the service of Andoran, fighting for the sovereign People who trusted him with their liberty and lives . . .

Who threw your own life, the lives of better men than you, and all your works away like they were garbage, of no use to anyone . . .

It was why he still wore his Knight’s coat even though it made most Shackles people uneasy. Not to remind him of what he once was, oh no, to remind him of what he wasn’t. Without it, he feared he would forget and start throwing away the lives of the men and women who depended upon him. He owed them better than that.

Still, sometimes you had to think first about what you owed yourself, he decided, and reached for a piece of parchment. Dipping his quill in the bottle of ink, he began to write.

Madam—

You have not vouchsafed to me the right to address you by name, nevertheless I hope you will not feel it an imposition if I beg you accept this token of my goodwill toward yourself, your Captain, and his newfound ship. In truth, I feel somewhat in your debt for the magnitude of the service you have performed in ridding the world of several men who befouled her with every breath they took, so in that light I hope you will accept this bow, the Eagle-Claw, that it might aid you in the prosecution of many similar works in the future.

Was it getting dark already? And here he’d written barely a paragraph. And his leg was cramping.

While much of the Eagle-Claw’s history is obscure to me, I do know that it dates from ancient Azlant and may even have been crafted by those fabled peoples.

There, that was safe enough, surely?

The sockets upon the grip were made to contain ioun stones, although of course any such they once contained are long gone. Still, you may be fortunate and come across replacements in your travels.

Come ON, Merrill, you can’t send off barely half a page with a bow like this.

Perhaps you wonder how it came to be in my possession.

Doubtful. Oh, well, press on, press on.

While I cannot make such claims with regards to many of my acquisitions, the Eagle-Claw came to my hands honorably enough. Some years ago we took a man aboard who was adrift in a tiny boat far from any land. He was sun-struck and nearly dead of thirst, but he claimed to be the last survivor of an Andoran merchant expedition to the island of the Sun Temple, having escaped bearing only this bow, the Eagle-Claw. Being of Andoran extraction myself, I was intrigued, and though the man did die almost immediately despite all we could do to succor him, I determined to make sail for this legendary island and ascertain the course of events there.

We were never to make landfall upon the island itself. Long before we came even to the suspicion of land in the distance, we were viciously set upon by none other than the Wormwood, flagship as you know of the vile Barnabus Harrigan, and two of her sister ships who were in the process of stripping a vessel so badly damaged that her name and provenance were impossible to determine. The resulting battle was a terrible one, for Harrigan seemed determined that no one should survive to bear hence the tale of this plunder. Had not one of my other ships arrived, I have little doubt that the Bonaventure, along with myself and all hands, would now rest at the bottom of the Arcadian Ocean. Since that time, whenever I have encountered any of Harrigan’s ships they have taken every opportunity to do ill to me and mine, though they are restrained from outright hostilities in many cases by the will of the Pirate Council.

Having witnessed your bravery and skill and heard of your sufferings at the hands of Harrigan and his ilk, I had no thought but that the gods must will for you and this bow to be together.

Pegsworthy hesitated for so long that the ink dried in the quill and he was forced to dig out his pocket knife, trim the quill, and clean it before cutting a new point.

So, I hasten to carry out that will and hope you will look favorably upon me in the future when we might have opportunity to spend time together ourselves.

Entirely at your service,

Merrill Tantrey

“Gods,” he breathed, staring at his signature. That name! He hadn’t used that name in years, a decade even! Yet here it was, coming out of his pen as if it were completely natural and right. Scrape it off, some part of him hissed in panic, but no, it would leave a mark and who aboard that ship of lubbers would know, anyway? Still, he must not lie and misrepresent himself. Inking his quill one last time, he added a final word.

Merrill Tantrey Pegsworthy

There, it was done. He set the parchment aside to dry. The rest he could leave to Labella, before he thought too much more about it and really did drive himself insane.


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