Chapter 1

"Festival At Megan"

The feast in the town of Megan was held under a moonless sky, a rare event, considering the planet has twelve satellites; but the two moons present that night were obscured by the Earth's shadow. It was cause for celebration, to be able to view the lapis-lazuli sky in its full splendor, with a million stars splashed across the heavens, all twinkling like diamonds.

The pirates' presence was tolerated in Megan, where they docked a multitude of ships in the Bay of Wolves, so long as they were relatively well-behaved. The town was exempt from pillage and plunder. In fact, the sea-dogs were good for the economy, purchasing spirits, clothing, rations, arms and repairs. They poured and roared in every saloon. Some stayed at the most luxurious inns, while others passed out in gutters and were rolled by street urchins.

In the crowded square partitioned by cedar hedges and stone ledges, chairs and benches were filled with buccaneers and mercenaries, as well as townsfolk and peasants, though they generally avoided the unruly mob.

Great tables were lit with candles of tallow or paraffin and loaded with food: breads of every grain, a variety of meat, salads, cheese, potatoes, and pies, and every drink imaginable from water to wine. Soup and cider were boiling in cauldrons. Entire cows were being roasted on spits, and spouts were being hammered into barrels of ale.

The barbarians gnawed on steak bones with greedy teeth, washed down fowl with rum and wiped their fingers on ragged shirts, while children were wrangled away from the boisterous brutes by their parents, who sat in the corners and tried to maintain some decorum by nibbling away at their portions with knives and forks.

Little Edward, a colossal man and captain of the Grieving Widow, sat at a long table guzzling mead so that it splashed in his black beard and hairy chest. He and his crew pounded the oak and demanded more ale. A nervous barkeep sent a frightened wench to deliver a keg, along with more bread. They roared chanteys and tormented the servants, who quivered behind the counter.

A figure approached the table, a young girl, no more than eleven, accompanied by a large dog. She wore only a purple bikini. Around her waist a leather strap supported a dagger in a studded sheath; her golden locks were held back by a plastic hair band; and around her neck was slung a thin vine, with a few tiny leaves still sprouting, from which depended a silent dog-whistle.

She stood across the table from Little Edward, who spread wide his massive arms and declared: “Behold, men, I don't think I've seen a lovelier lass in all me travels. But it's not meet for little girls to mingle with sea-dogs such as these. What brings you here?”

The girl replied: “I'm looking for the Gruesome.”

She was met with puzzled expressions and inarticulate mumbles. A passerby who'd overheard furtively slipped away.

Edward remarked: “You must be joking! Nobody looks for the Gruesome, except those who are doomed, and those who are already dead. She's as ghostly as the Flying Dutchman. Those scurvy devils creep up on ships with the fog, murder and plunder, and vanish again into the mist. There's a hundred ships at port in the bay, but none more mysterious or frightful. I'm sure the awful crew are mingling about, sipping wine with lords, dancing with ladies. And who are you, my little barbarian, to be inquiring after cutthroats?”

“I yam who I yam,” said she. “And I seem to be the only one here with courage enough to join the Gruesome!”

There was a hush, and dozens of fierce faces glared at the girl.

“I've roasted hearts on the end of my sword for less than that!” Edward retorted through gritted teeth.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a sabre slashed downward with tremendous force, cutting the loaf of bread in front of Edward, and splintering the board it lay on. He was startled, and his men flew back. All hands were on sword hilts, but with a gesture from the captain they were stayed.

Across the table, almost behind the girl, stood a tall, gaunt apparition clad in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, all in black, and armed to the teeth. The candles illuminated the cruelest face you ever did see, with a long moustache and a patch over one eye.

The stranger spoke in sepulchral tones: “I heard mention of a certain ship.”

Edward got to his feet. He was tall, like the man who still held the sabre, and far heavier.

“And who might you be?” Edward queried scornfully.

“I might be William Mundy.”

At this the closest of the pirates backed away from their seats. Little Edward leaned forward on his beefy fists like a gorilla and stared directly in the face of the other man.

“William Mundy, captain of the Gruesome. That's quite the claim. If you're really he, let me see your glass eye, for they say the iris is a black circle with a skull and crossbones.”

“I'd show you,” answered he, “but then I'd have to kill you.”

The two stared at each other intensely. The countenance of the one calling himself William Mundy was expressionless, immobile. Edward's upper lip began to tremble and he slowly sat back down.

“This has all been a misunderstanding,” said Mundy. “My apologies, sir, to you and your men if I've upset you.” Turning to the girl, he said, “And who might you be, my dear?”

“May, from Hyperborea,” she answered haughtily; and, nodding towards her dog, she added, “and this is Digger.” Then she drew her dagger and pointed it at Edward. “Now if you don't mind, I have a score to settle with this furry beast!”

“I've had Hyperboreans among my crew at one time or another,” Mundy laughed, “and I've no doubt you could kill this man with ease, but as you haven't earned the right to challenge him for leadership, you'd have to deal with the whole crew next.”

Mundy picked up a silver tray and, stabbing with the point of his sabre a hunk of the bread he'd sheared, threw it on. He continued along the table, skewering a roast beef and dropping it on the tray, then a mutton, a slab of cheese, a baked potato, and a chicken leg. He then poured May a goblet of jupiter juice and said with a smile, “My, but you're pretty.” He handed her the tray and said, “I suggest you sit over yonder beneath the tree and fill your little tummy. You'll want nothin' to do with any ship called the Gruesome, nor with any of these mangy curs. Now run along with ye, and stay out of trouble.”

May resented Mundy's condescending attitude, but did as he bade, begrudgingly, for reasons all her own.

“What a charming maiden,” muttered Mundy, watching after her. Then, turning to the buccaneers at the table, he delivered himself of this admonition: “I'm sure you'll see to it that nothing happens to her!” He sheathed his weapon and, lowering the brim of his hat, departed.


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