The Culpepper Question
by Martin Hall
Luciano di Voltani drew his sabre as hooks bit into the Largo like the greedy
of a bird of prey. His eyes narrowed as he called
out to his men through the acrid and hellish cannon smoke that hung over his
ship. Through it, he could see the whooping pirates as they crossed the divide,
their cries eerily displaced in the bright morning air. Luciano mumbled a prayer
to the Prophets for their blessing and touched the cross under his shirt. He
nodded to his mate and heard the order given, repeated along the length of
"Repel boarders!" With the first shout, Luciano vaulted forward into the press of enemies, not even taking the time to make sure that they had fallen. The bite of his sabre as it struck home was enough for him. His eyes fixed on the form of the captain, just now becoming driving his men forward like creatures from the abyss. Luciano recognised him instantly: Jack Culpepper. His mouth set in a hate-filled scowl.
"Culpepper!" he yelled, parrying a thrust and sending his sabre in a perfect arc into his opponents stomach, "You killed my brother! I demand satisfaction!"
"Did I? I kill a lot of people. Nothing personal, I assure you." Culpepper's cutlass rasped into his hand, and he swung it experimentally as Luciano swept past his men and bore down on him with vengeful fury.
Luciano's first swing was easily turned aside, but it soon became obvious that he was the better fighter, and Culpepper's heavy blade became slow in keeping Luciano at bay. The sabre slid across his arm, and a dark stain shot across Jack Culpepper's coat. He cursed under his breath and back away, further onto the deck of his own ship. He soon felt the mast at his back, and a Vodacce sword at his throat.
"Josephina, my dear?" Culpepper called out, sweat pouring from under his hat. "We must make our guest feel a little more welcome. If you please?"
The pressure in Luciano's hand suddenly became less. He looked down to find that he was holding what appeared to be an ordinary playing card. Of course, he thought, as Culpepper snatched his sword from the deck, the wife. As he spun to face the woman behind him, he saw the pistols levelled at his chest. Too late, he tried to shift to one side. As the force of both shots caught him and dropped him to his knees, the card fluttered to the ground beside the dying merchant. The young Avalon woman coyly blew smoke from the barrels of her guns and tucked them into her coat. "Too bad for you, captain. You never know when your lucks going to run out." She placed the card reverently on his chest and snatched the cross from round his neck. As he coughed his last breaths, Jack stood beside his wife, clutching the wound on his arm.
"No-one told me the merchant was a bloody swordsman," he grumbled. "We need a new informant."
Josephina cooed over the cut in Jack's arm. "It's only a scratch, dearest. It'll get better. Here," she said, tearing a strip of Luciano's shirt to bind it with.
"I know, my love, I know. But it's the principle of the thing!" An exasperated gesture indicated the ruined sleeve of his coat. "You know how much trouble I went to killing that chap without stabbing him through the coat. Poison is such a tricky business."
She patted her husbands cheek and smiled. "Still, a good haul here, eh? And were almost done." She indicated the Largo, where the fight had become a massacre and the screams of Vodacce sailors were getting fewer.
"Yes, precious, but they're getting too close to us in Vodacce waters. I think a change of scenery might be more beneficial to our continued business. Time to go home, my pet."
Josephina clapped her hands with glee and kissed her husband. "Avalon!" she squeaked. "It's been so long!"
"Now, my dear. Please. Not in front of the crew," Jack Culpepper smiled thinly. "Not in front of the crew."
moon shone down on the deck of the Highland Piper, turning the crews of
both ships into silver ghosts as they flew howling at one another.
pirates fought like madmen, flying into McGee's crew without regard for their
own safety. One of them had actually run into the point of Bonnie's sword as
she parried a swipe from another. Within a minute, she and her crew were fighting
back to back in the middle of the deck. She fought with silent and implacable
ferocity, laying the pirates down like saplings. As she whipped around to strike
at one pirate, the buckler in her left hand was brought down loudly on the
nose of another. It was only as she realised that the fight was beginning
to die down
that she heard the slow sound of clapping and turned to see Culpepper, his
wife at his side, applauding her with an arrogant smirk on his face. Her
dragging their wounded towards the safe ground at the sterncastle while Culpepper's
circled her men. Only a few isolated slashes marred the calm that had befallen
the Highland Piper.
"How very brutal, yet how dainty. Were you by any chance educated at the better Montaigne conservatories? You should be on the stage, captain." Culpepper's sword found itself in his hand and he beckoned to Bonnie. "You have not been very fair to me, I regret, captain, but I am a sporting man. What say you to trial by combat? To the victor, the spoils. The consequences to the loser of this match are not something which needs must be spelled out to such as you and I."
"Now you listen to me, ye smug bastard! The League have paid me tae take this load frae Kirk tae Kirkwall, and its for the MacDuff himsel, so its goin tae get there. It'll be a pleasure for me tae kick your arse into the bargain." Bonnie raised an eyebrow and swung her broadsword before her. Behind her, a bearded man bided his time and the rune of Villskap sung its sagas within his mind.
"Very well then!" Culpepper clapped his hands and his crew stepped back. "A wager! Your cargo for stake and your skill with the blade to speak for you in the matter." He adopted a fencing stance and Josephina watched with barely contained amusement. Her eye flickered to the spars of the Lucky Lady, where Edward was taking very careful aim.
Culpepper nodded to Bonnie. Begin. He lunged forward, and Bonnie's buckler knocked his blade easily aside. She began to pace around him and Culpepper took to skipping sideways, barely capable of concealing his amusement. Annoyed at his glibness, Bonnie brought her sword round for a low slash as Culpepper danced backwards. "Theus, man, stop yer snickering! Im going tae kill ye in a minute, and I like a swine like you tae die wi a straight face!"
"Quite all right, I apologise" Culpepper said, rattling his cutlass along the length of Bonnie's buckler. He glanced briefly back to his own ship. Bonnie's eyes widened. "Well, I was going to fight ye fair, but Geirmund!" Her blade met Culpeppers, and she spun so that Jack was between her and the Lady.
For the next few seconds, spots danced in front of Josephinas eyes, and the ringing in her ears carried on long after her vision returned. She saw the fire in the sails, saw the main mast of the Lucky Lady topple drunkenly to the deck and crash through. Stunned, all she could think was, "So that's how they managed to avoid us for so long." The boarding crew of the Lucky Lady scattered in disarray as lightning rained on their vessel. McGee's men swept forward, herding the pirates back to their stricken ship. Josephina stumbled behind a barrel and huddled unseen as a sure victory was turned into a desperate fight.
Jack Culpepper wasn't laughing as Bonnie's sword flew at him like a banshee, and his cutlass swung around to deflect the blows. "Whits the matter, captain? Not so funny when the odds arent in yer favour?" Bonnie beat down Culpepper's guard, leaving a nasty gash along the back of his right hand.
"Oh, I have a feeling things are going to get better for me, captain. Josephina!" he shouted, as he barely managed to avoid a nasty slash at his throat.
Behind the barrels, Josephina thought she could hear her husband through the clamour of battle and the ringing in her ears. She stumbled to her feet, barely conscious of what was going on around her. One of her men was flung across the barrels at her side, and a crewman of the Piper vaulted howling after him. She stared dumbfounded as Jack swatted in panic at McGee. It was clear who was the superior swordsman, and Josephina reached into her pockets. Producing a pistol, she pulled back the hammer and took careful aim at McGee's back as the deck pitched beneath her feet. The click was lost in the roar as the fire took a keg of powder on board the Lady, but the look in Culpepper's eyes spoke volumes to Bonnie. She flew to one side, moving with the roll of the deck, and the shot caught Culpepper squarely in the chest. His cutlass dropped from limp fingers and he slumped to the ground, clutching at the bleeding wound. Josephina shrieked and ran to him. "Damn you, woman Jack coughed. It was simple enough." With that, he fell onto his face as Josephina attempted to drag him to his feet. Bonnie let her drag her husband back to the Lady, shouting orders to her crew. "Cut grapples! Lets be out of here sharp, boys, afore that wreck takes us down wi it!" She shook her head, sighed and looked across at Josephina and her men carrying Jack Culpepper away. "Bad work, pirates. Bad, bloody work." As the Piper pulled away from the Lady, the fire reached the powder room, lighting up the sky like dawn.