Skull and Shackles

Prologue: The Wild, Wild Sea

In Which We Meet Sandara Quinn.

Posted by Darth Krzysztof

31 Desnus, 4712 AR

It was her own damn fault this time, again.

Sandara Quinn had arrived at the Formidably Maid far too early, and spent nearly an hour dwelling on her reasons for coming to this dive before ordering what turned out to be the first of too many mugs of cheap, spicy rum. By the time pirates started rolling in to fill the common room, Sandara was a wee bit too drunk to talk to them. And they seemed happy to carry on without including her, so she remained in her corner, staring into her tankard.

In the dim light, the rum seemed to ripple like the sea itself. No, Sandara thought, that can’t be right. You’re just loaded to the gunwales. She squeezed her eyes shut and regretted it at once, for Da’s face still hid behind her eyelids.

Limestone watchtowers ringed the harbor. She saw the names of every ship, and the waves on the sea aglow in the fire of sunrise. And Da was there, young and alive, as she always chose to see him, his hand on her shoulder. “I know I ain’t been there fer ye much, Sandi,” Da said… nearly twenty years ago, the words still as indelible as the tattoos on his daughter’s arms. “But I won’ say I’m sorry, fer thass a fisherman’s life. Thass the sea, lassie.”

That was the way of it, all right. Food doesn’t put itself on the table, Ma was fond of saying. She wasn’t sea-blooded like Da was, but being a seamstress didn’t leave her much time for Sandara, either. “I know, Da,” Sandara said, having made a sort of peace with the situation. “You got nothin’ to be sorry for.”

This brought the familiar smile to Da’s lips. “Bless ye, Sandi. I weren’t so nice about it when it were my Da gone to sea. But thass why I brought ye down here. Now, since I ain’t been here fer ye, I got no right to ask anythin’ of ye, but I still got one thing to ask of ye.”

“What’s that?” She loved her Da with all her heart, no matter how rarely she got to see him, or how little they spoke.

“When ye come of age, Sandara Quinn, I want ye to go to sea.”

“Da?”

Da pulled his hat down to shield his eyes from the sun. “Yer stubborn as yer Ma, but ye got my wild heart, sure’s the Eye watches the Shackles. And take it from me, a wild heart can only find peace on the wild, wild sea. So I ask ye to wait till ye come of age, and then go to sea.”

But I didn’t wait, Sandara thought. I spent more of my youth in taverns than I did at home, learning anything that anyone would teach me, because I wanted to be a sailor.

No. I wanted to be a pirate.

Pirates ruled the Shackles, after all. They went where they pleased, took what they wanted, and spent all that plunder eating, drinking, smoking, and bedding their way across the Fever Sea. And anyone who dared to oppose them ended up dead – if they were lucky.

And they looked good doing it, too.

Sandara drank another mouthful of rum, savoring the spicy flavor. Usually she could only afford grog, rum so watered down it might as well be water. The Formidably Maid’s house spirit didn’t hold a candle to Old Deep Rum, but for the price, it’d do. She’d have to come back here someday.

Sandara’s path to a life on the account, as piracy was sometimes called, hit a snag the night before her seventeenth birthday, when a monstrous storm spun off the Eye of Abendego and swallowed an entire fleet of fishing boats off the coast of Devil’s Arches. She begged the goddess Besmara for her father’s safe return, and when Da returned half-drowned but alive the next morning, Sandara devoted herself to the Pirate Queen. The tiny shrine she carved out of Hell Harbor’s streets became her whole life… and it would have remained that way, but for Da’s sudden passing.

I know he was proud of me and my shrine, but I still know I let him down, as I never went to sea. The only thing he ever asked of me, and I didn’t do it. At least it ain’t too late! I’m gonna live my life to the hilt, not rot away in that imp-infested Hell Harbor. And I made it to Port Peril, even if it took three weeks, and this is the best place to find a crew in all the Shackles.

“I ain’t gonna make that happen sittin’ on my arse,” she announced, pounding down the last dregs of rum and standing up to signal for another mug. The Formidably Maid seemed as unsteady as a ship’s deck beneath her feet, though, and she half-fell back into her seat after a moment’s hesitation. Was this dockside tavern built on the water? “Unless that’s all I’m good for at the moment.”

She waited to see if any of the serving wenches had seen her, but the place was busy, noisy, and dark. Adjusting the angle of her tricorne hat, Sandara carefully stood up and headed for the bar, easing her way around a pair of half-orcs to drop a handful of coins in a dark-haired barmaid’s hand. She gratefully thanked the wench for the refill, and was raising it to her lips when a man declared loudly, “Yer next drink is on me.”

Sandara turned to see a tall, thin man with a braided beard and a sneering mouth full of gold teeth. Tall and thin, even his long coat and heavy boots failed to give any impression of weight or bulk. A strong wind could snap him in half, she thought, but I’ll bet you shields to sails he’s a pirate. Let’s see what he wants. Maybe he just likes redheads.

“That’s kind of you,” Sandara said, “Mister…?”

“Master Scourge.” The man’s smile broadened. “Boatswain and master-at-arms of the Wormwood.

“Wormwood.” She pretended to search her memory, though she’d never heard of the ship. Master Scourge had impressive titles, to be sure, but an important man from an unimportant ship was still not very important. “Where have I heard that name before?”

Scourge shouldered his way closer to Sandara, but kept talking in the same loud voice. “Could be anywhere, my pretty Red. Cap’n Harrigan’s carving out quite a name for himself on the Fever Sea.”

She didn’t recognize that name, either. In fairness, there were more Free Captains in the Shackles than could readily be counted… but Sandara had spent years learning their names. She could even list every member of the Pirate Council – when she was sober, anyway. Still, Harrigan might be a rising star, even if his boatswain was too ill-mannered to ask a lady for her name. “Oh, Captain Harrigan; that’s where I’ve heard of you. And is your ship looking for hands?”

Scourge barked laughter at a couple of fellows behind him – crewmates under his command, if the forced way they shared in the “joke” was any indication. “Aye,” he said, turning back to Sandara. “As it happens, we are. Ye got the look of a sailor, Red, an’ make no mistake. But I say we get a room somewhere, and ye can put yer hands on my ship all ye like.”

Sandara’s hand flew to strike Master Scourge across the cheek with a loud slap that silenced every person in the Formidably Maid. Scourge raised one black-nailed hand to his reddening face, as if he expected to find it bloodied. His sneering smile, at least, was finally gone. He glanced at his cronies, then back to Sandara. “It’s like that, is it?”

Sandara tried to will herself to sobriety – she’d done it in the past, when fear threw her a lifeline – but she couldn’t shake the rum’s hold on her. Something in it, she thought. Drugged the rum with… something. “It is like that,” she said, “you repulsive little shit.”

A few more pirates walked up behind Scourge, blackjacks and saps at the ready. Scourge brought his hands together to crack his knuckles. “I think yer gonna be a pirate after all, Red.”

Sandara’s veins iced over. Damn the Eye, it’s a press gang. I didn’t want to go to sea like this! Not with this rooster crowing over me… She saw a lean man watching the scene unfold, a steel flask in one hand, something that had to be a pistol in the other. She couldn’t tell if he belonged to the Wormwood’s crew, or if he planned to get involved, but a firearm would make any melee interesting. Another man, taller and older than the gunslinger, stood further away, flanked by a Mwangi woman of equal height who quietly readied her bow. No idea about those two, either.

And none of the spells Sandara had prepared were very helpful for escape. Her fingers found the hilt of the rapier hanging from her belt. Black Lady, but I hope I don’t need to use this.

The last thing Sandara Quinn heard before everything went black was Master Scourge’s voice, saying: “Take her.”

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