- The Sea Wolves
Finn had been keelhauled less than two days ago; much of his skin was torn and ragged, some of it stripped away entirely. He’d looked as though he might not survive the night. Now, the marks were still there, an angry pink, but his wounds had closed. He looked as though he’d been on the mend for weeks, not just a day and a half.
Jack stared openmouthed, ignoring the men’s raucous shouting. He had compared Ghost to Lucifer, considered the Larsen a hell ship, the devil’s ship. Now he wondered if that might be more true than he could ever have guessed. That Finn should have healed so fully—that he could even be walking on his own two feet—was not possible. But Jack had encountered the impossible before.
The rest of the crew finished reefing the sails to make the most of the diminishing wind, then drew into a circle around the fighting men. Finn had six inches on the fat Greek sailor and much longer arms. But despite his miraculous recovery, Finn had lost a step. As they faced each other across the blood-spattered deck, both men already bleeding freely, Finn feinted with a left and then swung with his right, a punishing blow that might have shattered Demetrius’s jaw if it had connected. But the fat man ducked low and rolled inside the punch, delivering a trio of thunderous thumps to Finn’s abdomen that doubled the taller man over.
Finn grabbed a fistful of Demetrius’s greasy hair and yanked sideways. The Greek clawed at him, but Finn tripped him up, driving them both to the deck, where the fight became more vicious than ever. As the ship gave a gentle roll, they scrabbled for superior position, and the sailors began to cheer. Finn punched Demetrius in the throat. Choking, the fat man gouged at Finn’s left eye, driving his thumb in so hard that Jack expected the eye to splurt from its socket.
The crew was enjoying the spectacle. Vukovich and Maurilio were partially crouched, as though they might leap into the fray at any moment. Louis, Ogre, and Tree were grinning, Louis’s gold tooth glinting in the sun. The circle tightened around the vicious scrap.
“It’s hideous,” someone whispered behind him, and he shivered with pleasure, for he knew that voice.
Jack turned. Sabine had emerged from the aft cabin, and now her sad eyes came to rest on the bloody melee. Like a single lily growing in ugly, war-ravaged ground, she brought an incongruous and unearthly beauty to the moment. Clad in a bone-white dress, her hair pinned back in a simple sweep that cast the shadows of secrets on her eyes, she simply did not belong.
“You shouldn’t be seeing this,” Jack said, taking her by the elbow and trying to turn her back toward the cabin.
But Sabine refused to be turned. Lips pressed tight, she watched the vicious brawl as though it had been her purpose for coming on deck.
“I knew it would come,” she said softly. “I’m only surprised it happened so quickly.”
“Right,” Jack said. “You have the sight, or so Louis tells me.”
“I do,” she agreed. “And it is an albatross. But this has nothing to do with my sight. Finn has grown restless and put himself in disfavor with the captain. Demetrius is at the bottom of the pack, but with Finn weak, this is a chance for him to rise in the hierarchy.”
The pack, Jack thought. He had already mentally compared the crew to trail dogs or wolves.
“You talk like they’re animals,” he said.
Sabine gave him a glance that might have been pity.
A roar of pain drew their attention back to the fight. Demetrius had taken Finn’s genitals in his fist and now squeezed and twisted. Finn screamed. His lips drew back from startlingly sharp, jagged teeth, and for a moment he was more animal than man. Then he darted his head forward, jaws snapping down, head shaking … and tore off the fat Greek’s left ear. Blood spurted, Demetrius cried out, and the tables had turned.
“My God,” Jack whispered, turning away.
But he saw that Sabine had not looked away. She looked sickened but continued watching the fight as if she were a great queen and one of the sailors fought for her honor. Jack felt a tremor of jealousy in him, and he looked around to see if any of the crew had even noticed her. Who was she trying to impress? But, of course, he knew the answer: the captain.
Jack saw him, then, partially hidden by the mizzen. Ghost, watching the barbaric proceedings with his hands behind his back. His eyes were slitted and his face betrayed no emotion. Had he had robes and a gavel, he could have been there as a judge.
The Scandinavians stood flanking him, and when they began to approach the circle of observers, the rest of the crew scuttled aside. Jack imagined Ghost would call a halt to the fight and punish both men. Instead, the captain only nodded and gave a small wave of his hand, as if giving his permission for the crew to continue. Watching, and waiting for the terrible outcome.
Jack glanced at Sabine. Was she right? Had Demetrius picked a fight while Finn was weak, so that he could move up in the pecking order of Ghost’s crew? Observing the crew’s expectant faces and the ferocity with which Finn and Demetrius fought, he found it clear that something more than pride was at stake here.
Where do I fit into the hierarchy? Jack wondered. A prisoner, but also a member of the crew, at least for now. Given the choice, he thought the captives locked down in the hold might be better off. They were hungry, but Jack thought they might be safer down there than he was, up here in the pirates’ midst.
Johansen had been watching just as eagerly as the rest. He might be the first mate, but Jack had realized that he was not the member of the crew that Ghost trusted most. That role belonged to the Scandinavians, who seemed always to be with him or at least nearby.
Now Johansen caught sight of Jack and Sabine. He gave them a wicked smile and winked perversely, as if inviting them to enjoy the bloodbath unfolding on deck with him.
Finn staggered to his feet. One of his arms hung limply at his side, broken and misshapen. Jack thought he could see yellow bone jutting from torn flesh. He felt sick, wanted to rage at them all to stop this madness. How could Ghost let it continue, knowing that one or both of the men could be useless to him as sailors for weeks to come, or forever, should one of them be killed? Jack turned to look at Sabine. A tear traced a path down her cheek, but she refused to look away. Johansen kept glancing at them, as if equally entranced by their reaction as by the barbarism before them.
Demetrius rose shakily to his feet. One of his eyes was swollen shut, seeping blood and viscous fluid. Where his ear had been, only ragged flesh remained. Furrows had been clawed in his face and chest. And yet he grinned, and a low growl began deep in his chest. Despite his injuries, he still seemed stronger than his opponent.
Finn limped to one side and then the other, looking for an opening. But he had only one useful arm and one good eye. Where the scars of his keelhauling had begun to heal, many had now been opened afresh. He seemed disoriented. It might have been exhaustion or some new strategy, but he waited for Demetrius to move, and eventually the fat Greek thundered toward him like a charging bull.
Finn stepped deftly aside and snapped a kick at Demetrius’s leg, shattering his knee. The fat sailor screamed as Finn descended upon him, wrapping his good arm around his neck and dragging him toward the railing. Finn freed a rope that had been tied to a cleat and wrapped it around the Greek’s throat, then began to hoist him over the railing, meaning to hang him there until dead.
Jack glanced at Sabine, but she had lowered her gaze at last. He could not stand and watch any longer. He touched her arm, a tender brush of fingers on silken skin that sent an electrical charge shuddering through him and reminded him of the courage at his core.
“Captain,” he said, hurrying toward Ghost, “you can’t let this go on. Whatever happens, it’ll be murder, and you’ll be a party to it.”
The Scandinavians shifted to block his access to the captain. Jack halted but kept his gaze fixed on Ghost until, at last, the pirate chief turned to look at him.
“This isn’t your world, young Jack,” Ghost said, his voice low. He bared his teeth, but it was no smile. “You’ll come to learn that there is no place for civility or propriety here. The strongest eat first, and the runts go hungry. And some would rather die than be the runt.”
Ghost turned away, his attention back on the fight. Jack wanted to appeal again, but the twins’ cold blue eyes fixed him in his place, their promise of violence and pain overt. He backed off a few steps, heard the splintering of wood; and when he looked, the tables had turned yet again. Demetrius had broken a post off the railing, and now he hammered at Finn, who warded off the first two impacts before catching a blow to the head. Finn moaned, no longer able to fight back or even lift a hand in defense.
Demetrius roared in victory and grabbed a fistful of Finn’s hair. Jack watched in stunned horror as the Greek slammed his victim’s skull against the deck, then opened his jaws wide to clamp his teeth on Finn’s throat.
“No,” Jack whispered. The fight had been savage, but this was inhuman.
Ghost strode past the twins, the circle opening for him. He struck Demetrius a ferocious kick in the ribs, and the fat sailor went over onto his own back, just as submissive as the defeated Finn.
“Enough,” Ghost said. “You’ve proved your point.”
When Sabine touched his back, Jack almost shouted in surprise. All eyes were on Ghost now … all eyes but hers. She kept her hand on the small of his back, a small, secret intimacy that took his breath away. He knew instinctively that he had to be careful of sharing any intimacy at all with her. Ghost possessed her, just as he did this ship and its crew, and he would guard his possessions jealously.
“They’ll come for you tonight,” she said, that awful sadness even deeper in her eyes, and an urgent caution as well. “We’ll be locked away together. Don’t fight them, Jack. Don’t argue, not even the slightest. Not tonight, of all nights.”
Jack frowned. “What’s so special about tonight?”
“I’m sorry,” Sabine whispered. Then she turned and hurried away, perhaps to her chart room, where she guided the pirates toward their next unsuspecting target. Jack glanced around and saw Mr. Johansen watching them, eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“Cooky!” Johansen shouted. “Help clear these fools off the deck, and do what you can to treat their wounds.”
Jack strode over, gaze shifting from Johansen to Ghost to the injured men struggling to their feet without help from anyone else.
“The rest of you, back to work!” Mr. Johansen shouted.
The crew scattered across the ship, some climbing into the rigging and others going below. Tree and Vukovich helped the fighters stagger back to their quarters in the forecastle, and soon Jack stood alone, save for Ghost and the twins.
“Do they have names?” Jack asked suddenly, nodding toward the Scandinavians.
Ghost arched an eyebrow. “I believe the first mate just gave you an order, young Jack.”
“So he did. Though after seeing Finn’s condition before the fight and after his keelhauling, I’m not sure what help I can be.”
“Set Finn’s broken arm and Demetrius’s smashed knee,” Ghost replied, gazing at where the distant horizon had begun to darken with storm. “Wrap them tightly. That should be enough.”
“Enough for what?” Jack asked.
“To last the night.”
To last through what? Jack thought. But Ghost’s tone was curt, and Jack could see his temper rising, the tension in the muscles of his neck and shoulders and the way his fists opened and closed, as if the fight on deck had left him hungry for a little violence of his own. Now was not the time to ask more questions. And Ghost was right; Mr. Johansen had given him an order.
He started toward the forecastle.
“Huginn and Muninn,” Ghost said.
Jack paused and turned, frowning until he realized the captain had answered his question. Ghost nodded toward the Scandinavians, who seemed uninterested in the conversation, though they must know it was about them … considering Ghost had just spoken their names.
“Are those the names their mother gave them?” Jack asked.
“They were mine to name, Jack. Are you familiar with those names? Huginn and Muninn?”
Jack nodded. “From Norse myth. They were Odin’s ravens. His eyes and ears, in all the places Odin couldn’t be.”
“The names mean ‘thought’ and ‘memory,’” Ghost said. “It’s interesting to have an educated man on board. Stimulating.” The captain stepped in close so that Jack could smell the musky stink of him. “But don’t think for a moment that your life is worth anything to me.”
Jack forced a nervous smile, staring at the captain’s jagged teeth. “I wouldn’t dream of it. The only life you deem precious is your own.”
“Just so,” Ghost said. “I’m glad we understand each other. Now go and see to Finn and Demetrius, but take care, young Jack. An animal is most dangerous when it’s wounded.”
With that, he turned and descended the steps into the cabin where Sabine awaited, leaving Jack with much on his mind. Despite the brutality simmering within the captain and his crew, they seemed excited, almost giddy. Maurilio and Louis were already at work repairing the railing that Demetrius had broken, and they sang together in dueling French and Spanish, laughing almost drunkenly.
Seeing them so happy, Jack ought to have been intrigued by whatever secret awaited revealing. Instead, he felt nothing but dread.
They’ll come for you tonight, Sabine had said. Don’t fight them, Jack. Not tonight, of all nights. How could he simply surrender himself, let them lock him up? But if he fought, it wasn’t just his own life he was taking in his hands, but the lives of the other prisoners. And what of Sabine? She seemed like the ship’s version of the lady of the manor, but he could feel the sadness and loneliness in her. Did she love Ghost, or did she also dream of escape? Whenever and however he managed to escape Ghost and his pirates, Jack knew that he would try to persuade Sabine to go with him. But considering what her gifts meant for Ghost, it would take a miracle for him to let her go.