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by Rodryn
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #2295912
IAM Image Prompt - May 10, 2023 - The Inferno
         The open sea is no place for men of cautious sorts. That angry, frothing surface over which the oaken hull glides is eager to envelop any wretched soul unfortunate enough to beholden its embrace. Wooden shrapnel and remorseless metal screaming through the air confer a more humane passing. Lieutenant Wilkes bellowed "Fire all". The starboard batteries roared, spewing fire, iron, and smoke into the stolen merchant vessel. Gunnery crews scrambled to reload. Those curs that manned the defiled ship offered response. Men screamed as wooden shards leapt from the deck and into their flesh. Medics rushed topside, dragging the wounded away. A cannon on the top deck of the stolen vessel fell into the gun deck below, leaving a large opening in the upper hull. Wilkes ordered another volley and saw several vagabonds fall. The merchant vessel took the leeward to retreat. Wilkes began to order the helmsman to turn when the ship lurched violently and listed starboard before correcting. That fool captain had navigated them into shallow waters, too shallow for The Falchion.
         "Halt pursuit, trim sail and stow cannons!" he bellowed
Cries of acknowledgment rose from the men as they sprang into compliance. The captured ship finished its turn and caught a full sail. Master-At-Arms, Warrant Officer Harriot, approached Wilkes.
"Sir, we're letting 'em go?" he asked
"Aye" Wilkes said "We'll resume the chase in open waters"
Harriot gave his "Aye, Aye" and returned to the gunnery crews. Sailors scurried about, working the rig lines, or clearing debris. Their vulgarities carried a jovial tone. Wilkes moved among them taking stock of the damage and wounded. He returned to the quarterdeck and gave the helmsman a new heading. A lone sailor approached and saluted.
"The capt'n is asking fer ya, sir" the ward said
Wilkes nodded and journeyed below deck.
         The air held fast to the scent of piss, blood, and gunpowder from the battle. Every gunport and porthole sat open in a vain effort to vent the foul stench. Wilkes strode into the sickbay and made for the private cabin. The captain lay wrapped in bloodied bandages, pale faced and fighting to breathe. Wilkes saluted and the captain struggled to return the gesture.
"Report, Lieutenant" he said through clenched teeth
"Pursuit is broken, and we are navigating to open waters, sir" Wilkes said
The captain spat
"Blast it all Wilkes! We cannot lose them"
"Sir, the Falchion has taken three scrapes now. We cannot risk-"
A wet, ragged cough erupted from the captain. After a few moments he composed himself
"Dammit Wilkes, you are a timid, diminutive man. The Falchion is nimble enough for the shallows. Those curs best not escape. Need I remind you from whom our orders arose?"
"No sir. They will not escape"
"Find your bollocks or they will"
Waving his hand in dismissal, the captain turned his focus on breathing.
          Wilkes departed the sickbay. A dense mass began to form in his chest on his journey to the quarterdeck. Hang that fool. He put the ship in dangerous waters. If he is concerned with failure, and the ensuing reprisal from Governor Lee, then he should have charted a proper course. Reaching the quarter deck, he turned to the instruments and maps. They will be clear of the shallows by nightfall on the present course. From there, an east by southeast bearing will put them in the general heading of their quarry. Wilkes sniffed the air. The salt smelled stronger than usual. He gazed towards the horizon and saw clouds billowing in mass, their underbellies a dark grey and purple. Frowning he glanced between the clouds and charts. The intercept course should keep them ahead of the storm. Twilight crept over the sapphire desert when five rapid clangs rose from the bell followed by the cries of the sailor that rang it. Men removed their head covers in respect. Wilkes followed suit and bowed his head in silent prayer. One file cry pierced the air.
"Lieutenant Wilkes takes the con"

         A dour mood sat upon the crew. The grey sky and fog added to the somber morning. Two dozen bodies lay upon the deck, wrapped in linen. The priest moved to each one conferring final blessings. When the words were spoken to each, the bodies were hoisted to the railing and offered to the sea. The quarterdeck bell ran thrice in paired successions to mark each burial. At last, the captain was brought to the railing and joined his fallen crew. Wilkes offered gratitude to the departed for their courage and loyalty, then offered encouragement to the crew. Their quarry remained on the loose and they must follow. Wilkes closed the ceremony and dismissed all sailors to their stations. The Boatswain, Master Lems, approached him.
"Sir, reportin' as ordered" Lems said saluting
"Proceed" Wilkes said returning the salute
"Main concern be a small leak 'n the hold. Needs a pumpin' 'very hour or so"
"Form a detail, six men around the clock"
"Aye, Aye, sir" Lems said returning below deck
         As the day drew on the sea began to foam and the gusts became more frequent. The storm stalked their course, a predator with endless patience. Consulting the charts, Wilkes noted an island not far off. It was off the intercept course but held an alcove. He tucked the bearings into the back of his mind, confident their current heading would skirt the worst of the squalls. By midday his optimism began to dissipate. The heavens wept then burst and the wind howled an angry dirge.
         "Make ready for rough seas" Wilkes shouted
Sailors darted about the deck, tightening lines, and stowing any lose objects. He went about through the ship, inspecting their efforts, offering corrections and encouragement. Reaching the hold, he observed two men working the pump. Satisfied he returned topside. The listing grew more drastic. Topside crews began to tie their lifelines as the spray reached the side rails. Waves slammed over the hull and the sails held the full wind.
Lems arrived from below deck.
"Sir, the hull be takin' a poundin'" he shouted over the gale "the pumps need be manned a' all times, and it ain't looking like it works"
Wilkes chest tightened. He spat and turned to the helmsman
"Hard port" he said "bring around east by northeast"
The helmsman repeated the order and spun the wheel.
"Trim main sail, secure the topsails" he bellowed
Crews on deck struggled to their stations. He turned to Lems
"Double the detail on the pump"
"Aye, sir"
Lems returned below decks. The ship completed its turn.
"Midship" Wilkes said to the helm "Steady on and nothing off"
Thunder growled in the distance, followed by several quick flashes. Daggers lay pressed upon Wilkes nerves. Spray washed over the deck, knocking several sailors to their arse. They clamored to their feet as rain tore into them. The sun's light no longer graced them, and the grey turned to a darkened haze. This torment continued for a perceived epoch until a cry of "Land ahead" rose from the deck. Spyglass in hand, Wilkes first felt a flutter then a chill. They were nearly at the island, but waves crashed against rock pillars around the mouth. Wilkes took the wheel and made a few last-minute adjustments. The rocks ahead reached up from the deep, both exposed and hidden by the ocean surface.
"Haul home all sails! Prepare to weigh anchor" he yelled
Wilkes threw a nervous glace at the rocks around him as the ship broke into the bay. The swaying calmed upon entering the bay.
"Clear cable line" Wilkes paused "let go all anchors"
Coiled rope tumbled across the deck. The anchors crashed into the surface. The ropes went taunt, and the ship lurched to full stop. Wilkes sighed and returned the wheel to the helm.
"Secure the deck and clear topside" he said


         The storm failed to abate in the night and remained in full force by the following morning. Wilkes stood in the hold, water reaching his shins, and worked the pump. Their mad dash to safety resulted in further damage to the hull. The detail now required twenty men constantly working the pump. A second detail worked with pails to ferry water out of the hold. Despite the effort, the water refused to recede. Wilkes' arms screamed for relief, but he forced them onward. Moments later someone tapped his shoulder. He left the pump and took a seat at the back of the line. Sipping from the cup offered to him, he closed his eyes and let his mind mull the current predicament. They could not continue the hunt in this state. Apart from taking on water, exhaustion began to grip the crew. Unless the pirates decided to sail towards the same island, they would not have the strength to fight after an indeterminate time spent searching. Wilkes feared their strength would fail during the weeklong sail to home port. And once they return, Governor Lee would seek reprisals for their failure. That man was short in temper and stature. Wilkes did not believe he'd hang but he expected to be stripped of his rank. His stomach knotted upon the realization that his current role will be his only taste of a proper command. He shook his head as he recalled the captain's insult. Dismissal would not mean the end. There are plenty of merchant schooners in this corner of the world on the prowl for seasoned leaders. Captain or first mate of a merchant vessel was not such a bad fate. Wilkes' blood burned and his fist clenched. He shuttered at the thought of life aboard a civilian vessel. He could not conceive a future that did not include a navy uniform. The relief detail arrived but Wilkes remained in the hold. He continued in the rotation, the physical exertion on the pump helped to calm his mind. It was approaching nightfall when Harriot entered the hold.
"Sir, you are requested topside" he said
Wilkes followed Harriot to the quarterdeck where Lems saluted as he approached.
"Sir, we must he'd home" Lems said "We risk a wa'ery grave elsewise"
Wilkes nodded and gazed out of the mouth of the bay. Better than when they arrived but still rough. The decision was made to depart the moment the storm has abated. A dense weight formed inside Wilkes. Getting everyone home alive would be an effort all on its own.


         By the following morning most of the storm had moved on. Seizing the opening, the Falchion turned to open waters. Two day later, fate provided a cruel smile. The sun broke the last layer of clouds. A clear sky followed, and the gentle breeze bore the wailing of the gulls. Sails sat full, the air carried a salt-tinged clam and Wilkes' mood could not be lifted by any of it. Try as he might, he dreaded the reception that awaited him. At mid-morning he returned below deck for another rotation on the pumps. The crew developed a second wind upon hearing they were headed home. However, the water now sat knee high. Wilkes was mid stroke when Harriot rushed into the hold.
"Sir, ship off port bow"
"Colors?" Wilkes asked leaving the pump
Wilkes followed Harriot topside. A lone ship sailed towards them, about fifteen knots off. Wilkes extended his spyglass. A jolt ran through his spine. Their quarry was now bearing down upon them. He slammed the telescope shut and ordered the helm to starboard. With sails full the Falchion could keep them at distance. A merchant vessel was no match for her speed. Wilkes prayed they ran into a friendly vessel on the way. Exhaustion marred the face of every man yet they stayed true to their tasks. At the stroke of mid-afternoon Wilkes' hopes dissipated with the wind. The stolen vessel deployed oars and began to row towards them. A lump shot into his throat, his crew did not have the strength to row and keep the ship afloat. Harriot requested orders but Wilkes did not respond. The captains insult echoed in his head. He glared towards the enemy bearing down upon. His spine straightened, a curious though occurred to him. The pirates have a seaworthy vessel.
"All hands, Battle stations!" he roared
Harriot repeated the cry and darted off to muster the men. Wilkes turned to the helmsman and order the ship hard around. As men poured unto the deck, Lems approached him.
"Sir, what of the pumps?" he said
"Hang the pumps. Get all hands ready for battle" he replied
Lems chirped in acknowledgment, returning below decks.
"Abandon gunnery deck cannons, load grapeshot to topside guns. Prepare to board and seize" he shouted
The deck erupted into further calamity as all crew members readied for battle. Harriot darted over every cutlass and flintlock, inspecting them for battle. As the two ships closed the distance, silence fell upon both crews. Nearly in position, Wilkes noted that several of the guns on merchant vessel were not manned.
"Fire all" he bellowed
         Hot iron tore into the enemies deck, men screamed and fell. Their reply was muted, only a handful of cannons returned a volley. Wilkes ordered his men to board. Gangplanks thudded onto the rails followed by the thunder of footfalls on thin wood. He drew his saber and joined the fray. Jumping from the plank, Wilkes fell upon his first opponent. He dispatched him in quick manner. Wilkes darted through the melee to the quarterdeck. Despite their exhaustion, the Falchion crew pressed the attack, overwhelming the defenders. Wilkes slashed the throat of another opponent that attempted to impede his progress. The pirate captain stood before Wilkes, blade drawn. Wilkes denied offering him quarters and lunged. This opponent was well trained. Wilkes had several cuts added to his coat with nothing to show for it. The time on the pump weighed upon down. Wilkes saw the opening, snapped his wrist and the pirate captain's sword flew from his hand.
"Yield. Or shall I kill you now?" Wilkes said, blade against the unarmed opponent
The captain snarled, spun around and Wilkes thrust the blade. His strike landed through the captain's heart. He slumped to the ground with a final groan. Footsteps thudded upon the stairs, Wilkes turned, saber at the ready. Harriot froze, hands aloft, a smile upon his face.
"The ship is ours, Sir"

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