The Merchantman
by Dana DeVries

   The cannonball ripped through the planking on the elderly merchantman. Arm length splinters spun across the lowering sun. The swifter pirate ship tacked again to bring more guns to bear. The man at the tiller spoke, "That should be enough to convince them, Julia." The dark, diminutive woman nodded as she fingered the cutlass at her side. Her long hair briefly covered her face and concealed the scar marring her fierce features. But her voice when she spoke was soft and gentle. "Agreed, captain. You and your men have handled themselves well. This should all be over soon."

   The captain turned and shouted out orders to his men. Topmen dropped the sails and a white flag was run up. Their pursuer's final cannon volley arched over the water, falling just aft of the Raven. Julia snorted in disgust at their poor aim. Walking the length of the Raven, she thumped upon the large crates of cargo designated for a Castilian port they would never reach. Reaching the forecastle, she turned to watch the pirate vessel pull alongside and grapple the merchantman. A horde of unwashed hooligans crowded to the deck of the Raven. They waved a motley collection of belaying pins, rusty swords and pistols in the air as they descended upon the unarmed topmen who had gathered upon the deck amidst the boxes and cargo. Only Julia bore weapons.

   The pirates' burly captain strode forward after the initial rush had checked that the sailors were no threat. He bellowed out, "Who's in charge of this cowardly lot?" Raven's captain nodded to Julia. She stepped to the edge of the forecastle and called out in a clear voice, "I am."

   "Nah, ya aren't. Ah'm in charge of this here boat now. And if ya think different than Ah kin teach ya better." The pirate strode towards her wielding an enormous blade.

   "Actually, Captain Groggens." The burly pirate slowed in surprise that she knew his name. "The Guild taught me everything I know. Now I'm going to teach you..." Her piercing whistle broke the silence that her words had created. With a crash, five large cargo boxes lifted off the decking and crashed aside. Burly mercenaries wearing the gear of a half dozen nations lunged out from beneath their hiding spots. A dozen pistols hammered into the pirates and were tossed aside for more immediate weapons. An enormous blonde man wielding a panzerhand lead a screaming charge into the centre of the pirates. The merchantman's topmen disappeared into the rigging.

   Julia's cutlass whistled out to parry Groggen's first blow. "The first thing they taught me in the Merchant's Guild was to understand your opponent. You thought that a fat, slow merchantman hugging the coastline was easy pickings. I knew that a prize like that would draw you out of your rat's lair." Groggens lunged time and again at Julia, only to be parried each time. Finally, one of his attacks slashed along her left arm. She didn't even appear to notice. Behind him, he heard the sound of the mercenaries slaughtering his disorganized men. Nets fell from the rigging to ensnare several of his men. Groggens noticed just in time and managed to leap aside before one fell upon him.

   "Always know what you're buying and its quality. Otherwise you're likely to find yourself surprised at what you get. So when I went looking for mercenaries, I purchased the best available. It was more expensive. But when the Castilians realized you were taking their countrymen's money to smuggle their wives and children out of Montaigne-held areas and then dumping them overboard ... Well, let's just say that the money was easy to obtain." Groggens looked back to see that his men had been herded to an area directly in front of one of the remaining cargo boxes. His shouted warning went unheard beneath the sharp crack of a cannon loaded with grapeshot exploding from within the crate. The deck transformed into a bloody mess before his eyes.

   He barely parried the slash of Julia's cutlass and his eyes fell to the pistol lying on the deck at his feet. "I... I yield… I give you my word that I'll drop my weapon if you promise not to kill me."

   Julia sneered. "Always fulfil your bargains. If you break your word, no one will trust it again. Those women and children trusted you to smuggle them out. I'm not so trusting."

   Groggens began to blubber, "Please don't kill me. I give up. I don't want to die." He dropped his sword at her feet.

   Julia's face hardened as she dimpled her cutlass into the soft skin of his throat. "All right. I will not lower myself to your level." She turned from him and called out to her men.

   Quick as a snake, tears forgotten, Groggens snatched the pistol from the ground and put the barrel next to her head. "Now. Ah said Ah was 'n charge an' Ah meant it. Nobody moves or the pretty lady what pays ya is gonna be missin' a head."

   Julia smiled darkly and twisted in his grasp. As he pulled the trigger, the pistol clicked upon a spent cartridge. "Keep your eyes open for opportunity. You never know which details will matter. That's Thomas's pistol. He already fired it." She rammed the cutlass into his chest. Groggens dropped bonelessly to the deck. "Last lesson of the Guild: Always be willing to change with the situation. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a cargo you don't want." She wiped the blade on his shirt and turned back to her men as the sun dropped below the horizon.