(Okay, guys this began as a bit of a writing exercise. I wanted to see if I could write something that incorporated three of my favorite pop culture elements in the same story.)
The sun still lingered 'neath the eastern horizon when Captain Gregor returned from shore. The handful of sailors following him seemed to drag their feet a bit in returning from such an abbreviated leave, but their displeasure was muted behind the captain's purposeful stride.
Doctor William Madsen watched as the returning crew scattered across the deck of the three masted sloop, Black Fang. Some of the scraggly sea-dogs retreated to their sleeping quarters mid deck while others were gathered into the purview of the quartermaster Snorri. He barked orders to the weary sailors and they began tying down the rigging. It appeared the Fang would be off again before light fall.
Captain Gregor, paused briefly to speak with his quartermaster, then strode across the deck towards William. His black boots were caked with the mud of the mainland. His deep set gray eyes scanned the night sky.
“I'll be needing to sup', Doctor.” His long strides carried him past William towards his quarters in the aft. He didn't look back. William fetched his canvass satchel, took a moment to hunt for the soon to be rising sun, and scrambled along after him.
William was struck by how large the dimensions of the captain's cabin could appear when he was used to bunking on a small cot in the ship's infirmary. And even he had it better than the sailors, who mostly resided mid-ship on the gun deck, or when the oppressive smell got too much and the weather permitted, top side on the main deck.
The cabin, while large, did suffer from a decided lack of ventilation. Gregor had had the ship's carpenter build over the single window, now sealed tight with a wooden plank and plenty of oakum. The cabin was pitched thick in darkness, without even moonlight to frame it. William was glad when the captain lit some candles.
“Bombo, William?” the captain poured the rum into a dinged up old brass cup and offered it across a small wooden table.
“Thank you, sir.” William took a swig of the sugary drink. “Your inquiries went well ashore?”
“Well enough, I think.” He sat back on a plain wooden bench and worked at unlacing his boots. “The Amity left port not two days past.”
“And its passenger?”
“The cargo is still aboard. Apparently the captain invited several of the town's luminaries aboard to view it.” He ran his hand through his well oiled black hair and spat contemptuously. “A plague of rumors about the Amity and it's 'undying man' spreads through every brothel and punch house we visit.”
He suddenly looked very weary. His skin, always pale, looked almost spectral in the quivering candlelight.
“William,” he was always so apologetic, “I must eat.”
William reached into his canvass bag and pulled out a stoppered glass vial. He had layered it within the folds of several silk scarves to prevent it from breaking. The crimson liquid inside seemed more black in the low light of the cabin. It was still warm. William steadied his hand as best he could when handing it over to his captain. He politely averted his eyes as Gregor drank it down. He looked back as the captain placed the vial back on the table, laying it gently on top of the pile of silk scarves. William noted that his color looked unchanged, but his gray eyes seemed to flash with vigor. It was fleeting.
The captain rubbed at his temples and grunted uncomfortably. Dawn was near.
“Higgins. Complained of stomach ache. I bled him this evening.”
“Thank you, William. See that he gets double rations today, please.”
William made for the door of the cabin. Gregor followed gingerly. He was bent and rickety, as if aging with the coming of dawn. Yet outwardly he appeared no older than the thirty years he had always looked. It was as if the coming light robbed him of his vitality.
“Yes sir.” He stepped out of the cabin and heard the door being barred from within. “Sleep well, captain.”
He made his way up onto the main deck to see that the sun had finally pierced the eastern horizon and the Black Fang had indeed set sail once again.
Jojo Watkins watched the sun rise as he broke his fast sitting on the deck of the merchant barque Amity. He scraped the remainder of his rapidly cooling grundy up with his last bit of tack and climbed to his feet. They were two days out and the wind had been strong. His mop of shaggy red hair had been soaked through by the steady salt spray, leaving his locks tangled and frizzy. It was only just more than six months ago that his step-mother had found his perfectly straight hair a clear sign of his unholiness.
“Pressed by the devil 'imself” she'd mutter as he was getting lashed for something or other. He could only imagine that the hard old missionary would nominate him for sainthood if she could see him now.
He'd been done with his breakfast not long before the ship's master Leeks had found him.
“Boy! Be swabbin' the fo'c'sle before noon.” Leeks was an ugly, unpleasant chap, but as long as you gave no lip, and appeared to hustle, the whippings were rare. “And that water's not gonna' move itself!”
Jojo nodded and proceeded below deck. He'd get to the forecastle soon, but first he wanted to check on Lem.
They'd placed the feverish Lem in the forward hold, away from the rest of the crew. A large pallet had been draped with a canvass sheet and Jojo found his friend and fellow cabin boy curled up there, pallid and shivering.
“Lemy?” Jojo crouched down at his side.
“Nnguh.” Lem rolled over onto his back. His face was dark and puffy, the area around his eyes so swollen that Jojo had a hard time telling whether they were open or closed.
“Jo...jo?” The sounds limped from him, throaty and desperate. He looked so much worse that he had the night before. His right arm was heavily bandaged where he had been bitten.
“I'm here, Lem... Doc says your fever should be breaking soon.” He took a hold of Lem's left hand and gasped. Where yesterday his skin was warm, almost hot to the touch, today it was so very cold. “It's a good thing, too. That fat frog Leeks has me doing all your work.”
“Is it... still aboard?” Lem shivered and pulled his arms close to his sides, “do... do you still have to feed it?'
“Oh, it's still aboard. Captain Wittman ain't gonna get rid of his prize just cause it bit some swab boy.” He patted his hand gently. “They got it locked down in the bilge hold. We don't feed it no more, though.” Jojo was happy for this. It didn't seem to matter anyway. The creature didn't seem worse for the lack of eating.
Lem seemed calmed by the news. He groaned and rolled back onto his side.
“Hey if the smell down there doesn't end 'im, maybe it really can't die.” Jojo meant it as a joke, but in reality it didn't look like the creature could be killed.
When the Captain had first brought it aboard two weeks ago most of the crew thought it was merely some sort of islander taken to madness. The creature was lethargic, slow moving, even shambling. It snarled and groaned, but was rarely aggressive unless someone got too close. Once when it lunged too close to the captain he ran his long sword straight through its chest and then watched aghast as it continued staggering about, unfazed by a certain killing blow.
It was then that the Captain realized that he might have found a new world curiosity that could bring him great fame and notoriety. He would present it at court back home. He, Captain Reginald Wittman, would be the discoverer of The great “Undying Man” of the New World.
Since then they had sailed up the East Caribbee, seemingly docking at every port along the way. The captain was eager to indulge his fame fetish. Martinique, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis... at each port Governors, wealthy merchants and plantation owners would be brought aboard to see the captain's prize and toast his great discovery.
Then, two days ago Lem had been bitten. The captain had invited the Governor of Nevis and his plain-faced daughter aboard to see the creature, who that night was reluctant to shuffle into a better light for viewing. Lem was sent into the hold with a fresh rabbit carcass to draw him out. The creature had moved with uncommon quickness and bit deeply into his fore arm. Lem managed to scramble away when a sailor sunk a crossbow bolt into the creature's chest, but his fever had followed just a few hours later.
Following the incident the captain ordered the creature down into the bilge hold and decided to make preparations for the long voyage home. They would fit for the trip in St. Kitts in three more days. Jojo wondered whether Lem would be alive when they sailed into harbor.
He gave his friend one last pitying look and rose up to start on his days work. Dabber, the ship's surgeon entered the hold just as Jojo was exiting. If he hadn't have been so late to start swabbing the forecastle he might have noticed the bandage wrapped around fresh bite marks on the doctor's left hand.
“Shit.” William handed the spyglass back to Snorri, who grunted and took another long look.
“How long would you say?”
Snorri's reply was thick and heavy, like a hammer falling. “They make time on us... Even at full sail they take us before nightfall”
Their pursuer was almost certainly a pirate hunter, probably commissioned out of San Juan. New colonial governors loved to flood the waters with crown sanctioned hunters, opening up the trade lanes and making life very difficult for vessels like the Black Fang.
“Looks like a frigate. Full compliment of guns. We gonna be outnumbered if they board.” Snorri stepped away from the wheel and a scrawny little sailor took his place. He looked comically small in replacing the burly quartermaster.
The captain had given strict orders to flee from any engagement, and Snorri had every intention of complying, but it was only a matter of time before they would be falling into range of those cannon.
Snorri was directing sailors below to the gun decks and prepping the ship for the eventual combat. William knew the Fang was lucky to have such a capable number two, particularly given the unique limitations its captain faced. He checked the sun, which was waning its way west, but not nearly fast enough to make a difference. They'd likely be blown out of the water before Captain Gregor emerged from his cabin.
“Doctor. Clear some space to work. You'll be having some business.”
The crew was arming itself. Most men carried cutlasses or hand axes tucked into belts or sashes. William cleared a long wooden bench to operate from. His medicine chest stashed safely beneath. Snorri was back at the helm. “We'll keep this heading as long as we can...” he bellowed above the din of action. “But when they start firin' on us we'll have to turn and engage ship ta ship!”
The crew roared. Conflict, even of a futile nature, stirred their blood lust. William frowned. He didn't like their odds. If only they had more time. Captain Gregor could surely tip the balance. If they could somehow delay for another hour it might be enough...
At once he was racing across the bustling deck. He nearly knocked over a portly sailor hauling a coil of thick rope. The sailor, William thought they called him Rudi, snapped off a raspy “Arrr!” as the doctor slid past. If this didn't work he'd likely be picking buckshot out of the surly bastard's arse later.
He called out to Snorri, who was once again peering through the long brass spying tube.
“Not a good time, Doctor Will.”
“No, wait. Listen,” he tugged at the sleeve of the giant quartermaster, garnering an angry stare. “You've got to raise the white!”
“Surrender?!” he roared, “I haven't time to discipline your cowardice just now, doct-”
Just then the frigate fired its first shot, traditionally one of warning. It sailed over their heads, followed by a thunderous crack.
“No! Think... We need time! If we fly the white they'll look to board and take the Fang as an undamaged prize. They'll be in no hurry if we aren't resisting.” Snorri was big, but no oaf. Understanding blossomed on his monstrous face.
“And come sundown... The captain...” Snorri nodded.
“We get our best piece back in the game.” William hoped the chess metaphor wasn't lost on him.
Snorri set the plan in motion at once, ordering sailors he had been whipping up for a fight only moments earlier to stand down. Well trained, the men fell into line quickly, and within seconds a white flag was jerking its way slowly up the mast. William had gambled their lives, and now waited for the cards to turn.
The sun had only just nestled itself in the bend of the western sky when the frigate's captain and a small contingent of marines finally clambered onto the main deck of the Black Fang.
“Who commands?” The frigate captain was adorned in full military dress. A long royal blue coat, thick cotton trousers, and shiny black leather boots. William was particularly envious of the boots.
“Sir.” Snorri stepped forward.
“You will present a manifest and ship's log,” his voice was disinterested and formal. “Your officers may remain aboard for the time being, all other sailors will be placed in our brig.”
Snorri was escorted by three marines below deck to retrieve the logs. William hoped that he would take his time. He squinted at the sinking sun as the frigate captain inspected his new prize. Not much longer...
Dusk was nearly upon them when Snorri and his escort finally arrived back on the main deck.
“Clumsy ogre's son took a bleedin' lifetime to open the chest, sir” the marine handed his commander a ratty leather backed log book and a tube of rolled up papers.
“No matter. We've got what we needed.” he spent a few moments reading the book and scanning the scrolls. “As suspected, these dogs operate without a Letter.”
The commander handed the papers off to one of his men and cleared his throat. The last sliver of sunlight was zipping up along the horizon.
“In light of your piracy, I claim this vessel for the crown.” he swept his arms in their direction, “Toss them overboard. We'll not waste good ropes to hang them.”
A low rumble began to emanate from Snorri, and he flexed his considerable muscles. He aimed to take a few to the drink with him. William dropped his head for one last prayer, the sun had fallen and with it his hope.
“A word if I may, commander?” Captain Gregor edged up the wooden steps from below. He was still in his sleep clothes, cotton knee length breeches and a silk vest. His normally tight, tied back, black hair flowed wild and out of control. At that moment he looked anything but their savior.
The marines raised rapiers in his direction. The commander barked harshly.
“Who are you, sir!”
“According to your words, I appear to be the former captain of this vessel.” he raised his arms over his head and continued his slow walk onto the main deck. The frigate captain looked over to Snorri for confirmation. The big man shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. William nearly burst out laughing. He wondered how this was going to play out. He knew the great and terrible things his captain was capable of under the shroud of night.
“Why have you not presented yourself before now!” The frigate commander blustered.
“I'm a heavy sleeper.” he smiled, a glint in his eye. “Now I know you'd like to be on with dumping us all in the chop, but might I have a word, gentleman to gentleman?”
The commander let loose with a disparaging Hrrmph but moved forward, with two marines at his side. William could not hear the words his captain spoke, but he noticed that Gregor had captured their gaze... all of them... and he held it in a most uncanny way. It almost seemed as if he was directing their gaze. William found it most queer, and somewhat unsettling. The seconds passed slowly, and for a time Gregor didn't speak at all. For a long time the only sounds were of the wind whipping and wood creaking...
And then Captain Gregor was speaking.
“So you'll be off then?” he was walking the commander to the port side, where planks had been laid down for the boarding.
“Of course, sir.” the commander's voice was still formal, but his disinterest was replaced by admiration, even rapture. “Thank you for your time, sir.”
As the hunters crossed back over to their vessel, William crouched down and leaned against a slick wooden railing. His sigh of relief inspired a playful chuckle from the approaching Captain.
“Quite a gamble, doctor.” he held out a hand and pulled William to his feet.
“Didn't like our odds.” William wiped some nervous sweat off his brow. “Figured I'd draw for the wild card.” he shook his head at the captain. “The alternative was getting blown to the bottom of the sea or going ship to ship. Would have gotten real bloody.”
“More importantly it would have cost us our pursuit of the Amity”
The captain's eyes grew dark and serious whenever the topic turned to the Amity, and William had no doubt that he would exchange infinite amounts of blood and oblivion to prevent that cargo from reaching its destination. The captain noticed his consternation.
“There are things in this world that should not exist,” William followed him as he moved below deck. “I know this better than most, William...”
“Aye, sir” he croaked, suddenly very, very tired.
“We must take the Amity before it crosses. At any cost.”
The cool night air soothed Jojo Watkins' sun-blazed skin as he entered his second full night of captivity high in the Amity's crows nest. Or as Jojo thought of it, his sanctuary from Hell on Earth.
He crawled to the edge of the platform, rubbed the salt from his eyes and peered over the low railing. He choked up a heavy sob at the sight.
The main deck of the merchant ship Amity was littered with corpses. Walking corpses. They had been staggering slowly back and forth across the deck, mindlessly and endlessly for nearly two days. They groaned and snarled, and occasionally snapped at one another when crossing paths, but thankfully showed no inclination to climb the rigging to reach him.
He recognized, barely, the faces of his friends and fellow sailors amongst the undying horde. He saw what once was Master Leeks trying to gnaw on a thick rope tied along the port side. His mouth was caked with dried blood. Rope hadn't been his first course.
Jojo rolled away from the edge of the platform, closed his eyes, and not for the first time cried violently. His body shook in throes of helplessness. His step mother had always warned him that his wickedness would one day draw horrors to his eyes. He wished he'd stayed and let the pious old witch continue to beat it out of him.
With his fit of weeping behind him Jojo once again tried to piece together the events of the past few days. Days that, until quite recently had actually been some of the more pleasant times he'd spent at sea.
The captain, officers, and much of the crew had been taken poorly and were abed for several days. No one really had thought much of it at the time. Sickness was far from uncommon at sea, and it always spread rapidly. The common sailors and swab boys had of course taken full advantage of the lax discipline. They had kept the ship sea worthy, but mostly had spent the days and nights deep within their cups, drinking, gambling and carousing the nights away.
Jojo had been no exception. When he awoke that morning, curled within his worn cotton blanket in the mid-ship, he thought he might have died within the night. He closed his eyes tight, seeking to seal off access to his battered brain to the sunlight gleaming in through the port hole. He remembered little of the previous night, but the rum fuzz coating his tongue enlightened him in a most unpleasant manner.
He rolled up and onto his unsteady legs. His hangover had robbed him of the sea legs he had worked so hard acquiring during the last few months. The ship rolled from side to side rhythmically, but Jojo noticed a decided lack of forward momentum. Had they anchored? He pitched and swayed his way up the wooden steps to the main deck.
The sun was almost directly overhead. He had slept away half the day. His head roiled at the clamor of altercation. There was fighting all over the ship! Men were screaming and hacking at each other with swords and axes. Up ahead he noticed two sailors grappling with each other. Jojo rushed forward, his legs strengthened by the rush of adrenaline, just to see them tangle up together and fall to the deck. The man on top wrenched his head clear and sank his teeth into his opponent's neck. He tore at the flesh, rending a chunk free and settled back contentedly to feast upon it. Jojo looked into the face of this walking nightmare, and through a spray of blood and bits of bone recognized the dead-eyed stare of his friend Lem. His face was ashen, the skin sallow and loose. Tufts of hair had fallen out and in places his skin was peeling off in thin raw strips, exposing the muscle and bone beneath.
Jojo emptied the contents of his stomach over the side after watching Lem chew ravenously at the bloody chunk of meat in his hands. He spared a quick glance around the ship. The sails had been torn down in the initial fighting and the mast looked like it may have been damaged as well. That would explain why they were dead in the water. Everywhere he looked he found the same scene. The dead men swarmed the living, tore at their entrails and then crouched down to feed before clawing out another helping. The screams of the survivors had mostly ceased. The only sounds left were the scraping of wood against wood, and the sickening smack of dozens of dead men chewing. He turned his eyes back to what had once been Lem. The creature, finishing with his slab of neck meat, still hadn't noticed him. Lem crawled back over to his victim, moaning hungrily.
And then Jojo watched in horror and amazement as Lem's dinner let out a groan himself, rose up and slapped Lem's hungry hand away. When the newly born dead man turned in his direction Jojo noticed he shared the same dead-eyed stare as poor Lem. Around the ship the same process was playing out over and over. The half-eaten were rising to join the ranks of the hungry undying. The mutiny of the dead was complete.
His escape up the rigging to the safety of the crows nest was harrowing but brief. His long wait until death from dehydration and exposure would be longer he knew, but there were worse deaths you could have at sea. Much, much worse.
He felt another crying jag coming on, so he stood up on the platform to look out upon the cherry blackened night sky. He cursed his wet, blurry eyes when he thought he saw a three masted sloop crossing over the crease at the sea's far edge.
“Just once I'd like to look through this thing and see good news.” William quipped as he handed the spyglass back to the captain. Snorri grunted lightly, was it a laugh? It would be a first.
The Amity sat lonely and adrift under a near full moon's silvery light. The sails of the merchant ship were riven and tangled, sagging sadly across her bow and dipping into the choppy water.
“She's not takin' water, Captain.” Snorri observed.
“No... I'd imagine the ship will survive” the captain was pacing the deck, never quite taking his eyes off the Amity.
“Pity her crew didn't...” William was again through the spyglass. He scanned the deck once more, trying to count the roaming dead. He added to his count one whose legs had been ripped off at the waist. It dragged itself along the wooden deck, leaving a trail of gore and cartilage in its wake.
“Indeed,” Gregor sighed and rubbed his face roughly, “hoped this might go easier.”
“What could be easier?” Snorri interjected, “All of 'em are dead! We load up the guns and send the entire thing ta the locker!”
The captain shook his head. “Not an option. If even one of these blasted things washes ashore...”
William noticed that the captain had buckled his scabbard. In the years he had sailed with Gregor it had been a rare occasion that he'd seen him draw his sword.
“The heads must be severed. Every last one.”
“Hah! So we board and do it the fun way!” Snorri fingered the rough wooden handle of an ax half as heavy as William.
The captain laid his hand on Snorri's thick, sinewy forearm, “I board, old friend. Alone.”
The quartermaster's protestations were cut short as Gregor ordered The Black Fang alongside the stranded Amity. As they closed William could hear the desperate mewling of hungering dead. Icy spikes shot up his spine.
“You sure about this?” he offered.
Captain Gregor drew his blade. It was forged into fine black steel, “I'll be fine, Will.”
“I can't die twice!” he leapt from the Fang, soaring the twenty feet separating the two vessels and landed gracefully on the starboard side of the doomed merchant ship.
The captain's work was brutal, efficient, and breathtakingly beautiful. William stood slack jawed, watching Gregor glide from corpse to corpse, clearing the deck as calmly as a serving wench might sweep a hall. What William had expected might take over an hour was finished in minutes. Heads were literally still rolling when Snorri finally laid down the boarding planks and motioned Will and the rest of the crew across.
By the time he had finally urged his shaky legs to carry him over to the Amity, the bodies were being piled up by a crew that William judged deserving of a very large raise in pay. He found the captain facing away from their work, wiping his blade.
“Necessary.” the captain finished.
A commotion broke out behind them.
“Survivor! We got a live one!” the crew had paused their grim work to hoot and holler as Snorri climbed down the slumping rigging, a scrawny red-haired boy slung over his shoulder.
The captain placed a firm hand on William's shoulder and leaned in close. His words were stern. “Check him for bites.” he laid a hand on his sword hilt idly, “And, doctor? Be thorough.”
He met the Captain's eyes and nodded firmly before rushing to the boy's side. He was grievously dehydrated for a start and William called for water immediately.
The boy downed a full skin of water before his strength returned enough to speak.
“Am...I” He shifted aggressively, trying to sit up, “Is it over?”
“Easy, boy.” William cut his clothing away and examined him closely. His skin had been blistered badly by days in the sun, but he could find no signs of bites.
“He's good, Captain.”
Gregor smiled, and his darkness lifted like a fog being swept away by a stiff breeze. He knelt down alongside William and the boy. He leaned in close and captured the boy's gaze.
“What's your name?”
“Jojo” the boy's eyes grew soft and malleable.
“Jojo, you're a very lucky chap.” Gregor swayed his head side to side. Jojo followed his eyes, “You get to forget...”
It was a glamor. The same one he had used on the hunters. Fascinated, William waited for the captain to finish.
Gregor rose to his feet as the boy Jojo was lead aboard the Black Fang. “We'll drop him in St. Kitts. With any luck he'll never remember what happened here.”
William's envy was as thick and briny as the salty sea.
Gregor went back to wiping his blade. The ship was silent, but for the gathering of bodies. It was unsettling. He was glad when Gregor offered more conversation.
“They fell so easily...” he motioned to the bodies of the dead, “Not a moment's recognition that their existence was about to end,” he finished wiping his blade and slid it into the scabbard.
“They died long before we arrived, sir. I'd imagine the will to continued existence is beyond the dead, even if they still walk.”
“As it should be, I suppose...” Gregor's words were drenched in regret. “I think I might envy them that, William.”
William closed his eyes wearily. Envy and death mingled in the cool night air.