The Fertile Lands
The voice carried sharply over the slapping of the wet line against the deck and the heavy breathing of the multitude heaving around on it. The anchor was above the waterline now: it swung just a foot or two above the crests of the gentle waves. The men holding the line were now holding the full weight of the anchor and they knew their task:
Hold the line. Do not let the anchor touch the water.
Sweat glistened off the shirtless men; more sweat flowing now under the pressure of their duty as the day star approached its zenith. Hands started to lose their grip on the soaked line. Forearms started to weaken. Still the crew held fast.
Footsteps pounded off the wet deck. A single pair with a click-clack as the finely-cobbled heel met wood beneath. Bare feet started to slide as the ship pitched into the seas.
You four, hoist the topsail!
Again the voice boomed. Four pairs of bare feet slapped against the deck charging aft to comply. Another sixteen pairs slid briefly before finding purchase under the additional load once carried by those men. Another few ominous steps broke the silence of the men still holding the anchor.
As quick as the call came a sudden pull on the line and the anchor rose another two feet: Five feet was all that remained between the anchor and its hawsepipe. Surely, the men thought, their ordeal was nearly over.
You two, hoist the gig!
Two more men duteously and silently abandoned their hold on the line and scurried off to their task. Fourteen others started to shake. Their arm muscles were aching, their exposed skin burning in the midday heat. One grimaced as the footsteps passed; steel sung as it was swiftly drawn from its sheath and with a powerful smack the broadside of the blade landed against the man’s back sending him to the deck in agony. Thirteen.
Pay out two feet!
The anchor grudgingly slid back toward the water.
Then the voice again; this time not a shout, but a vicious whisper:
Instantly, twenty-six eyes rose from the wooden deck and fixed on the face of the Captain. The man they saw was lanky and extravagant; his gaudy green vest visible beyond the horizon surely, the men would joke in private. Half his left ear was missing and the other half was a gnarled stump; the right ear was perfect as a piece of gold; both could hear a snide remark from leagues away. His black trousers fit tightly and were tucked into the finest pair of boots ever made; the boots’ black leather freshly polished so that light reflected off them blindingly.
In the Captain’s hand was his beautiful sword. It was the sword of an honored naval officer once, Daniel Jaessin its elaborate markings proclaimed. No one in the crew knew whether it was stolen or if Captain Westwind was always its owner and they knew better than to ask.
The point of the blade rose up and pointed at the first man. The second. Third. Westwind held the point menacingly at each of the first ten on the line before returning the shining steel to the blackwood scabbard on his hip.
Hoist the mainsail! You three, join them.
Those last three dropped their eyes and let go the line before turning aft to join the others at the main mast. Now ten men were left staring at their Captain, baking in the heat, feet slipping on the deck, and arms shaking from the weight of the suspended anchor.
It slipped a few inches before the men arrested its fall. The Captain’s eyes narrowed and a savage smile appeared under his thick, brown and gray beard.
Hold the line, he spit at them. First you steal my gig. You go ashore to plunder without my leave. You sack five hovels and leave nothing untouched. And yet, upon your return you share what? he asked rhetorically.
He drew the word out under his breath with such fury that it commanded the attention of the entire crew. For a moment, not the wind nor water nor crew dared to move.
He glared up at the sails and everyone and everything returned to fervent motion.
Hold the line.
He said nonchalantly and his footsteps boomed off the deck as he walked aft. The ten men followed him with their eyes obediently; then, they followed with their heads craning their necks to the limit of motion as he passed them; they pushed themselves to turn their heads further knowing that they were last ordered to look at their Captain and woe unto him who disobeyed: that’s how they go in this mess to begin with. Still they held the line.
Captain Westward eased their suffering by allowing them to break their gaze. They bowed their shaved and burning heads and stared at the wooden deck beneath their bare and blistered feet and still they held the line.
As the day star fell from its zenith, still the ten held fast. For hours they toiled as statues: hungry, thirsty, hot, still. Now they heard his footsteps abaft and moving closer. They gripped harder now; blood stained the line where they held tightly and dripped to the deck as the salt on the line set their hands alight.
Their sullen gaze met the white-hot fury in his eyes.
Look forward, two points off the port bow. There is an island there I mean to ravage, inflame, and leave bereft of treasure. You may join me, and share in the spoils, if the anchor remains dry. If not. The Captain paused. Look two points off the starboard bow.
Their tired eyes shifted from left and the small island peaking over the horizon to the right where a line of fragmented, jagged peaks were emerging in front of a dark, black cloud that choked the sky and hung forbiddingly. Red lightning leapt heavenward from the cloud like the tongue of a giant serpent.
This command was meant for the entire crew and all hands willingly complied. Captain Westwind looked each man in the eyes to measure their mettle before continuing.
If the anchor touches the water, I will maroon you in the jaws of Azkhan! Front!
The men looked down again obediently and held the line for their lives.