It's Flashback Friday, and I have a piece from January of 2014 that I kind of enjoyed, so here it is. A little longer than usual, but hey, it's summer, so enjoy a little extra vacation reading!
The Bartender and the Pirate
Lira stood at ease behind the bar, wiping glasses and listening to the words flowing around her. No one ever paid attention to the bartender, and you could learn an amazing amount that way. What Lira was learning tonight was that the pirate ship was back in the local waters, and people were afraid. No one seemed to know who the pirate was, whose ship had been haunting their shores off and on for several months. When there were no fat merchant vessels to take, the pirates would land and take what they wanted, from livestock to women.
She shrugged to herself. Pirates had been raiding this coast for years. Centuries, probably, ever since the first boats sailed in and out of the harbor. Pirates were a part of life along the coast. Then a bit of conversation caught her attention.
"Dead, he was, just a-lying in the field with his throat cut, I tell you!"
"Never! And him saying he could outrun or outfight any man on this coast."
"Looks like he was wrong."
Lira glanced down the bar. Two grizzled shepherds had their faces buried in their beers, but she was pretty sure they'd been the speakers. She recognized them, of course. She knew everyone, even those who never came into a bar, or who would never come into a bar run by a woman. "Taint decent," was the verdict of most of the women, but the men didn't care. They came for the best beer and the chance to be waited on by something female.
And they told her things. Enough that she had a guess, looking around the bar, who might not have been as fast or as fierce as he'd thought. If she was right, he was no loss to the community. Basher Gaffen was a bully and a coward, and if the pirates had taken him out, so much the better.
"Funny, though," the older of the two elders said, coming up out of his beer as though he'd heard Lira's thoughts. "Ol' Basher wasn't killed with a cutlass like the pirates usually do. His throat was slit as neat as neat, like a butcher with a hog, it was."
Lira grimaced. That wouldn't be very neat--blood all over, more like. But throat slitting with a fine knife--it didn't sound like pirates, though they'd likely enough get the blame. She sighed. No doubt that was what the killer intended. The only question was whether she'd put it right.
Two hours later, Lira knew she would let the pirates take the blame. That was when she finally met the unknown pirate. The unknown pirate was all too well known to her. She would let the bastard hang and dance on his grave.
First she had to escape.
Lira had gone to look at the place where the dead man had been found, after the bar shut down. It was the middle of the night, but since she didn’t expect to find anything there anyway, she figured a lantern would cast enough light to show her that any evidence had been trampled by those who came to take the corpse away. She could then agree that whoever had done it, they’d done the village a favor, and could go get some sleep.
The lantern gave away her location to the pirates, who had come back and were in a nasty mood. Lira knew she was in real trouble, but it might have been worse, at least in the short term, if the Pirate King himself hadn’t been there. As a result, she was still alive and whole. She was also bound, gagged, and parked in the bilges awaiting his decision about how to kill her, but that could be overcome.
The pirate king’s real name was Norman, though none of his men knew that. Or none had known, until they’d taken Lira. She’d recognized him at once, even though it had been years since they’d been in school together, and he’d grown a lot since then. He’d been a victim back then, a scrawny kid struggling under the burden of a name that invited teasing. He’d retaliated with underhanded plots that got other students in trouble for things he did, usually those with no one to defend them. Just the way these pirates operated.
Now Norman was the fierce and feared Pirate King, and he would not forgive Lira for revealing his true name to the men he led.
She would never forgive him for getting her tossed out of school.
Lira cursed herself for a fool. She knew better than to go roaming in the night when the pirates were on the loose. The Pirate King had decided they were his personal supply house, and Lira stood in his way. She figured she had at most an hour or so before he made up his mind whether to skin her, hang her, or just throw her overboard. And that would almost certainly be after giving her to his crew for a while.
She had no intention of sticking around for any part of it. Working off her right shoe, she bent down until she could hook a toe into the gag. Fortunately it was a warm night, and she wasn’t wearing socks. The gag wasn’t tight—Norman had only put it on to stop her telling the men about his past; she wouldn’t get anywhere by screaming in any case. The ship was standing about a half mile off the shore.
With the gag removed, she could use her teeth on the bonds securing her hands. It took a long time, but Norman had insisted on tying her up himself—probably to keep her from telling his men what he really was like—and he still wasn’t any better with knots than he had been as a boy. If a real sailor had done it, she’d have been sunk.
Lira dropped the last loop of rope into the stinking bilge water and stood up cautiously. She felt around for her shoe and slid it back on, unwilling to risk stepping on something nasty in her bare feet. The only question now was if she would expose Norman to his crew and let them take care of him, kill him herself, or play it safe and just dive overboard and swim for shore.
The pirates decided it for her. When she crept to the hatch and peered out, hoping to find the crew asleep and only perhaps a single watchman dozing by the wheel, she found instead that the entire crew was gathered around the Captain’s cabin, where Norman was engaged in a heated argument with someone she couldn’t see.
Lira stepped out of her shoes. They would make a noise she couldn’t afford. Moving silently from shadow to shadow, Lira got close enough to hear the discussion, and she smiled.
Norman was in trouble. His crew wanted to know how a guy named “Norman” could make himself a Pirate King, and why they should follow him. He was soft—too soft to even kill a troublesome female.
Lira was in trouble, too. The crew was making it clear that if he wanted to remain a Pirate King, Norman was going to have to prove his bloodthirsty credentials. On her. And she had no doubt that he would. Nothing she’d heard suggested that Norman had learned mercy since leaving school, and she was willing to bet he’d moved on from sneaking to murder. He wasn’t a scrawny kid any more, and he’d never been soft.
The knife he wore as his belt, as she’d noted earlier, was sharp and lethal. Exactly the sort of knife that had ended the life of Basher Gaffen. And Basher had been one of those who tormented Norman back in their school days. He’d tormented everyone, right up until Norman had slit his throat in the field on the far side of the harbor.
“An’ let’s see you lead us in and clean out that stinking town once and for all! We’ve had enough of sneaking. Burn it, kill ‘em, take all the women. Unless you’re some kind of sissy!”
Lira had heard enough. She moved silently back away from the crowd toward the bow. Shedding overshirt and skirt, she slid through the hole where the anchor chain ran, swung as low as she could over the water, and let go, pointing her toes to enter the water as cleanly as possible.
She wasn’t quite silent enough. Some keen-eared pirate had heard the splash. A yell and the sound of many bare feet crossing the deck warned Lira, once she’d resurfaced, that she’d been spotted. She struck out for shore with a steady stroke, diving once or twice when she heard pistols fire. The single-shot monsters were not terribly accurate, and she kept her course.
It took the pirates several minutes to bring the vessel about to follow her. Even as she swam for her life, Lira thought Norman must not be the seaman he imagined himself, or he’d have lowered a boat, rather than bringing the ship in so close to shore. The men had their blood up too and no one was thinking. Raising her head to orient herself, she saw she was directly off the headland to the south of the harbor. There was enough moonlight to make out the form of the land, but not enough to see what lay in the water.
She glanced back. The ship was coming after her. The wind had picked up and the pirates came on at speed.
With a grim smile she set a faster stroke and made for the point. She would pass over the rocks, mostly.
Lira stood dripping and half-naked on the shore, shivering even on this mild night after twenty minutes in the cold waters. She was cut and bruised from a landing among the rocks through rough surf. But she smiled as she watched the pirate ship, sails still set, wallow and break apart against the rocks that had lain hidden just below the waves.
She’d never finished school after he’d gotten her kicked out for lewd behavior. But she’d done just fine. Norman had finished school, and it had made him a Pirate King. But he wouldn’t trouble anyone any longer. Some of the men might make it to shore. Norman would not be among them, even if he thought to shed sword, cutlass, knives and pistols before they dragged him to the bottom.
Norman couldn’t swim. Basher had made sure of that. It made a nice sort of circular revenge.
The case, thought Lira, was nicely wrapped up. She turned toward the village, cursing a bit as she realized she had to walk a mile home barefoot. Still, it was a small price to pay.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2014
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