Monday, December 20, 2010

...And a bottle of rum!

The ship pressed through the cold northern waters, driven by a powerful tailwind. Though the icy bite of the wind had driven most of the men below, the Captain was glad: if this kept up, they would make port half a week ahead of schedule. So long as the sails hold, he reminded himself, and looked up at the rigging.

Captain William MacDonald hadn't meant to sail so far north, but shortly after leaving Jamaica they'd stumbled into the path of Calico Jack. The pirate was persistent, and chased them up the coast for the better part of a week before MacDonald had managed to lose him.

He glanced again at the rigging, and for a moment he saw something else, hanging in the sky beyond it. The wind whipped spray into his eyes, and he blinked. Then he turned scanning the skies, squinting against the wind and the cold.

It was off to the starboard now, and no mistaking it: a tiny ship, the size of one of his own ship's lifeboats, and it flew. It cut through the frozen air just above the waves, pulled by creatures the likes of which Bill MacDonald had never seen. A chill went through him, colder than the winter wind. He looked for the flag, saw it mounted on a small pole at the front of the ship: a jolly roger, its skull-and-crossbones picked out in red.

The stories of Christopher the Red were true, then. Captain MacDonald could scarcely credit such madness, but already he was calling for his men. They came forth from belowdecks, scurrying to arm themselves and get the cannon into place.

It was already too late. The pirate had circled again, and his men sleeted the deck with arrows. Crouched low beside the wheel, the Captain saw that the stories were true on that account, too: Christopher the Red was full-grown man, but his crew was tiny, barely half his size.

Nobody knew where he had found them, or how. There were stories of an ancient map, discovered by a shipwrecked sailor; of the pirate who had taken the map and followed it to an ancient temple; of the powerful artifacts and servants he had found there. Now he preyed on the merchant fleets, striking and vanishing like a devilish ghost. No ship was designed to fend off an attack from above, and Christopher the Red took full advantage of the fact. His craft was too small, too fast, too maneuverable. He could take it in any direction, while the sailing ships were at the mercy of the winds. A lucky shot might end his reaving, but nothing else would do it.

"Run up the white flag!" called Captain MacDonald, yelling to be heard over the wind. "Have the men get to the boats! We'll stand off, and let them take what they will."

This, too, was part of the stories. Ships that surrendered willing, whose men withdrew and waited, were left afloat. On ships that fought, all hands were slain and the vessel was torched.

"Sir?" asked the Mate, looking at his Captain.

"We carry bullion," said MacDonald. "How much can they take, in that little ship of theirs? How much weight before they cannot fly?"

It was done as he ordered: the sails were furled, and the surviving men went into the boats. Alone on the deck, Captain MacDonald raised the white flag himself. Christopher the Red must have seen what was happening, for he took his ship out and up, making a wide circle around the floundering merchantman. He circled closer as the boats spread out, and finally brought his flying vessel down onto the deck.

Captain MacDonald did not waste the chance to see the legend in person. It was all of a piece with the stories: the great, fat man dressed in red velvet, his belt and boots of heavy black leather; the little men spreading out behind him, some standing guard while others made a line for the hold; the strange beasts that pulled the flying ship, the beasts that now pawed impatiently at the deck, eager to be off once more. The ship looked little like any boat that Captain MacDonald knew, but then it never touched the water. A pair of silver runners along the bottom gave it a way to sit on land.

Christopher the Red moved towards Captain MacDonald without the slightest hesitation. His expression, if he had one, was hidden behind a thick, white beard. "I know what you must do," he said evenly.

Captain MacDonald yanked the pistol from his belt, but the pirate was faster. The impact of his ball skewed MacDonald's aim, and his own shot buried itself in the wood of the mast. MacDonald sank to his knees, and one of the little men took the pistol from his hand. He'd had no choice; he could not willingly surrender his ship. With luck, though, he had managed to spare his men.

The little men were moving quickly, or perhaps it only seemed that way. They raced from the hold to the flying ship and back, carrying the heavy gold bricks as if they weighed nothing. There was something on the back of the ship, a sack of some sort, that never seemed to grow full no matter how much they dropped inside. They were taking the entire cargo. Captain MacDonald's career would be ruined, but he doubted he would survive to see that.

And indeed, Christopher the Red was approaching him with cutlass drawn. The blow smashed into his shoulder, and he fell to his side on the deck as the pirate wrenched his blade free. Darkness was closing in around the edges of his vision, but he could hear - distantly, and growing ever more distant - the pirate laugh: "Ho ho ho!" he called to the little men who served him. "And a bottle of rum!"

* * *

The sleigh circled once as Christopher the Red looked down on his latest conquest. The boats were moving back in, the crew returning to the ship.

"What now?" asked the Elf at his side. "Another Merchantman?"

"No." For a moment, melancholy touched the pirate's expression. "I've had enough of piracy... and we've treasure enough to last us centuries. We'll find some place where nobody can reach us, and settle down there."

"But what will we do?" asked the Elf.

Christopher the Red shrugged, and patted his massive belly. "When I was young, I dreamed of owning a toy shop. I can certainly afford to build one now. Who knows? Maybe I'll atone for some of the wrongs I've done by bringing toys to children who don't have any. It would be easy enough. Our friends can take us anywhere."

The Elf fell silent. If his master was sincere, he would be relieved. There was no escaping his bondage, but a life of making toys for children would be far better than this. In time, he and his brothers might even come to enjoy it.

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