It was dusk as he started to first clean away the gore spattered thickly against his throat. In indulgent considerations of purity, it was a priority born from the human requirement for comfort, for he was accustomed to having filth on his hands, his limbs (usually revealed beneath cloth seared by gunshot). His fingers, already deeply reddened and with blood caked beneath the nails, fought to recover his knife as they slipped against the wood of the handle, thick with residue, it having lain against the bloodied deck for a time in excess of an hour. He could hear only his own breathing, at the time, his own inward thoughts upon a battle that may well have waltzed him to the grave (the wound on his shoulder continued to weep, still, a consistent reminder). In the meanwhile, half the enemy already lay dead and in preparation for burial at sea, not a word on their lips.
He remained trembling where he stood, yet was strangely euphoric with whatever disturbing thrill he found to often accompany confrontation - in what aspect it was rooted, he couldn't immediately tell, but even with uncreased skin and with no lines crawling from his eyes' corners, he was of the opinion that this chaos was something to which he was pleasantly well acquainted. He was bidden to stare hard against the approach of darkening sunlight, but managed to note quickly that the merchants were almost entirely exhausted, corpses in the water and entrails stained with gunpowder.
He supposed that perhaps this day's elation would prove more prolonged and beneficial to those usually experienced, and prayed privately that it would not be quietly killed. It was the sort of enjoyment for which he had come to yearn, to experience in necessity of distraction, to delight within lest it be lost and the sense of unstable lividity return. He could not bear the nightmares, the imposing and unnecessary reconsiderations of engagements. He would not be stalled.
"You're smoking again."
Arthur had failed to notice the smoke that was tumbling from his lips, the lengthy pipe which he had brought to rest against them as soon as he had brought it from the pocket of his coat. Nonetheless, his mind was effectively quieted, his quivers stilled. "It was recommended by the surgeon. Are they all dead?"
Dragging his fingers along the length of his curved knife, streaks appeared against Spanish blood. "There is little doubt otherwise. Their goods haven't yet been investigated, so I'm uncertain only as to the value."
"Their route passed along Barbados, did it not? I'd expect they'd at least have some water with them. But it is a wonder to me that they weren't wrecked beforehand. Perhaps we have merely delivered the imminent and have done them a favour." Arthur grinned against the lip of the pipe, then lowered it in favour of speaking more directly with the boatswain beside him, speaking with a scarcely concealed urgency. "Lose another man to scurvy, although, and we may as well endure the same fate as has met this lot of damned fools. Should you so wish, I won't object to you beginning the burials. Another hour and the Royal Navy will be smelling blood from England."
"Yes, of course. Can't have that," he answered, tucking away the knife. Arthur heaved a laugh as he turned away.
Parting ways and crossing to the other ship, there arrived upon Arthur's mind the first true realisation of the ship's pitiful capacity - it was an evident miracle that the merchants had succeeded in resisting capture for such a long period of time, even if only a few hours had gone by, for even the sails themselves were torn, an accompaniment to the bodies of the ship's protectors, its able group of persisting, thoughtless individuals. It was these muted thoughts that embodied his contemplations, for a time, that detached but uncertain emotion, culminating largely in relief once Arthur's attention was drawn to where a small group stood by the opening to the levels beneath. Pausing, he noted with disgust the pounding that still resounded from beneath his ribs, the signal of humanity lying under his skin, and had to convince himself to think no more of it, to dwell no more upon the uncontrollable; it was as insignificant as the water that the winds had blown into his eyes, reddening them.
The continuous squawks and cries of the merchants' stock of fowl was quite possibly the most distracting thing onboard the ship, yet the focus of the men was upon him as he approached, and it was not the first time that he felt gratitude for having stature enough to meet their eyes directly, lacking a need to scold from below. In comparison to the majority of them, he possessed reasonable height, something for which he felt blessed whenever personal conflicts happened to be stirred. Beneath their scrutiny, he was exponentially more aware of his stance, the liquid trickling consistently from his shoulder. He supposed he would need to expose it to salt water later, regardless of whether he knew the wound would burn.
He made a venture to interrogate the gathering of them, talking briskly, having no inclination to continue fretting over his own state. "What's all this? The ship will need to be burnt within the hour. We've no time to hesitate."
Their answering expressions, the lifts of their eyes and heads, should've been enough to settle the issue entirely; a peculiar sort of disgrace lingered there, their knuckles white against stained wood. Still, reverence was not of any minor importance within their mindsets, cemented by their years on the account, and thus they responded to his brusque mannerisms without a trace of careful regard.
"We've been fooled, Kirkland."
"By our own haste, perhaps, and now by your continued cowardice, but I suppose it does not require mentioning. We must burn the ship before night falls and it becomes a beacon. I expect you to do your part as I have done mine."
Retaliation proved immediate, although enough was known and enough was understood that it could be accepted as imminent, was thought given to receiving it. "Do not patronise us as children! We are your equals so long as the deck remains clean, our weapons sheathed. Keep your tongue to yourself."
In wake of the seaman's words was a general chorus of laughter, a lewd choir of jeers that verged on discord. Lifting his chin, thumbs pressed to the edges of his eyelids, Arthur fought once more to restrain himself for as long as it took for the ridicule to diminish, which he was taken aback to find took very little time at all. To what severity this extended, he did not know, nor did he immediately understand the rebuke he was quickly offered. It took scarcely more than a moment for many of them to assume an uncharacteristic solemnity, a troubled sort of preference for thought, but still his teeth ached from having been ground against one another, and habitually he dragged an uncertain finger across them (the gums, he was satisfied to note, were not yet inflamed, and did not drip with unwanted fluids).
The other man's eyes still kept alight, weathered skin strained with the mere effort of refrain, yet Arthur's glance met his own with a derisive strength. Arthur was the first to speak. "There are better times and places for quarrels than this."
"Believe me, of that I am aware," he replied, grinning. "But it is still too soon to draw blood."
"Authority has always been unfamiliar, hasn't it? Still, your mannerisms are peculiar this evening," he remarked to the group of them, biting out the words, meeting their eyes. "One would think you had fallen ill and adopted madness. I would have assumed that having to resort to alcohol alone these weeks would please you." His voice was frozen and brimmed with condescension, his accent crisp.
"Nothing will please us should we continue like this. The brandy doesn't matter." Sweat glistened upon the dark skin of the new responder, and for the first time it became noticeable that the night would be unbearable.
"There's no need to be so damn cryptic. What's this message? I grow tired of this--"
One of them went to rise to his feet, yet then appeared to have decided otherwise; his name slipped Arthur's mind. Blood was smeared across the seam of his charred lips, the words falling from them seemingly directed to the horizon. "There is nothing below, Kirkland. The ship is hollow. They have led us here like lambs."
There was a lengthy pause, a strenuous drag of the seaman's gaze from one place to another, halting only at the point where a corpse's arm had thrown itself outward from where it ought to have remained still and colourless; the limb appeared to be making a sweeping gesture in the direction of the splintered futtock. Already, as per the norm, the insects were beginning to gather, to crawl. He heaved a short laugh from a charred mouth, a gesture of humour that would have been better suited to denial by a deathbed, hands tight upon his knees.
Arthur spat the word, almost with an unheeded ferocity; he was unable to comprehend, unable to think. He felt a dreaded coolness settle into his innards, the sort of fearing premonition he thought he ought to have outgrown years prior. His breathing became short, driven with urgency. "They're Spaniards, merchants! Why would they have fought if not for their goods? Do not tell me it was for the sake of their lives; no men I have known would be so mindless, so zealous." Falling almost subconsciously to a kneel, he grasped for the edges of the ladder leading below, tempted to see whether or not they were lying for whatever reason, but feeling it would be a likely waste of time, regardless. At the lowest rung were eyes and the sound of familiarly lengthy sighs, and the scents pressing to his nostrils were merely refuse and bilgewater, coupled with the hot, leaden breaths against his ears. Once more there was the thrum beneath his ribs, yet now his mind was blinded and it was effort enough to develop a coherent thought beyond ire.
"Can you find nothing? No water, no forgotten slaves?" he called down the shaft, expectant, gaze hardened.
"There is not even grain for the animals."
He swore furiously, wishing nothing more than for the chance to seize, to kill, and to alleviate. Refrain was no longer a priority in his mind as his fingernails sought the wood beneath them; his head brimmed with an incredulous delirium, hands clumsily raking through his hair only when no other form of temporary distraction was available. "Oh, Devil take us," he murmured, looking wildly toward the ocean, and straightened. He stared into nothingness, yet his tone gained pace. "But they will not succeed. They will not have our throats. We are not yet deprived of our breath."
"They will come firing their guns."
He turned, one hand tight against the edge of the ship. "And we will counter every shot with our own! We cannot afford to lose what we have strived to gain, lest the gibbet welcome us! Do you wish to survive until October? Better to die where we stand."
The largely universal discontent of the seamen, despite Arthur's own conviction, seemed to be solidifying, voices rising in volume, hands grasping for weaponry as many came to make known their disbelief, their paining disquiet, for whatever reason they deemed it necessary. "There is a complete lack of sense in this," called one, a single face among fifty men (the ship, Arthur was all of a sudden ashamed to note, was not yet a fleet). "It's a damned mess. It's mayhem. To have sacrificed so many merely in the name of their endeavour is naught but insanity--"
"To be frank, I don't give a damn who incited it, whether this ship was underprepared or simply used as a decoy. All of it is irrelevant. Every minute we waste is one closer to having our throats cut. There is still the chance to regain what we have lost. We cannot resign or we may as well be dead to ourselves."
"We are damned, we are dead men. The noose has found us and not even God has granted us the grace of being made aware!"
"Go back, fall back!"
A wavering shout was what prevented him from speaking again, from indulging his return of power at least in verbal terms, deep as it reverberated against wood and metal alike. Softly, the cry lessened to a gravelly address, splitting somewhat. "They are upon us!" was the first harsh warning, then a slightly more uncertain cry of "it's the Devil", at last being reduced to a paled mutter of something unintelligible. The atmosphere of cold foreboding was close to tangible, to something far thicker, even, than air choked by gunpowder and humidity, and drawing nearer to the suddenly voiceless Arthur, the seaman mumbled his final prayer. "We must never allow them to clean their swords of our blood. We cannot."
"Death is imminent, I'm afraid. But I do not know if today will see us into our graves," replied the captain, half to himself, but all at once his mind was dull enough to be likened to the merchants' knives. He clapped his comrade on the shoulder. "Good luck."
The merchant vessel lay ignored and brittle in the sun as the majority of them crossed back to the ship with a solitary mindset; already for Arthur, the concept of a suitable, conceivable approach had barely managed to reach his head and sow the seeds so soon as the looming ship, swift and dreadful, seemed upon them; it was a hulk of a vessel, an ambitiously crafted ship-of-the-line, and despite its relative size it appeared to dwarf their own brigantine when contrasted at such distance, and when comparing the complexity of its craft. Eyes required straining to properly receive all the details of its weaponry, its enormity, the stark formation of its sides; the deck seemed almost to be adorned with the numbers of men it contained, the most visible being those whom were already recognisable by how their coats glinted against the sun lying low behind them. Arthur wondered, then, whether it would be a good decision to cease wearing the uniforms of officers he had killed.
"They come from the west - we will meet them where they stand. We will ready our defence!" he yelled, turning away, voice scraping against the flesh of his throat. Smoking had made it deep, but his exhaustion had made it hoarse. Breathing carefully, the captain fumbled at his side for where he had previously sheathed his knife, tucking away the pipe as he did so. After a bare moment of his apparent consideration, although, his hands withdrew and went to his pistols, searching for the mechanisms. "I care not for whether they are men or children - you will slaughter them. There will be repercussions. I want to see blood. I want to see where you have slit their throats."
It was later that Arthur supposed this should have been enough to incite some sort of internal questioning, some delicate reconsideration and thinking, but none of them surfaced within him as he stood there, willing to regard his order as having been quite sensible, quite well-suited to the necessity of a battle that brought only dread. It was realistic, so he did not understand why they stared upon him as though he had uttered something extraordinary. He had to maintain his sense of order and superiority while it lasted – as soon as the cannons were still, his position would resume worthlessness, after all.
He forced out his final command. "We will force our way through the ranks!"
The deck was splintered in a moment.
He was thrown backwards from where he stood from the mere force of the impact, blood and gore in his eyes, splattered around him. The limbs of the others were contributors to a number of audible cracks and breaks, fractured and crushed bone beneath bloodied skin, while one man beside him fell with a shard of wood through the eye, screaming. He felt himself physically shudder, an accompaniment to the pain, although he could define the cause. It seemed preferable at that moment to clutch for the newly torn wound over his leg, yet Arthur still stumbled to his feet, light-headed, raising a hand toward the instigators as he roared over the cacophony.
His flesh quaked despite the sun. "Return fire!"
One hand clutched for his ear, the other grappling uselessly with a firearm slick with blood and sweat, and for a time it was difficult to hear his own voice over the ringing that dominated his hearing. Bitterness was on his tongue, smoke was invading his sight, causing his eyes to smart, and it was something of an exceptional wonder that he was able to see the arrival of the navy's men, whom had already thrown their hooks over the ship's side just as Arthur's own had done. They pushed forwards as one, and everything was deafening, not at all aided by the bullet that grazed his ear. Fear was brief, then. Fear was brief and Arthur had no time in which to consider the urgency of their plight, the looming approach of death, the sounds of a dozen final breaths being breathed all at once.
Nothing was spared, nor did he wish it were otherwise. All that could truly take priority in his thinking was the knowledge of how easily his blade slipped its way beneath a man's ribs, and how quickly the blood swelled beneath the man's waistcoat. Even so, he was struggling to breathe, himself, by the time he had pulled the knife loose, and turned to press the barrel of one pistol to the nearest head of an enemy, skin hot and pressure building behind his eyes. Their ranks were compiled of strange sorts, he thought, varying between those who appeared distinctly aristocratic, and those who may just as well have been press-ganged; regardless, their training must have been relatively sufficient, for they handled the artillery with ease.
He fired, and once again there was bone on his skin.
The thrum has started up in his chest, driven to a pace that was almost agonising, and still he was shouting commands blinded by enmity, screaming out into a night obscured by thick smoke and the scent of blood, all the while with his kin falling continuously and with no means of telling whether or not they had perished. The easiest thing to pay attention to was the sheer amount of the enemy who seemed to be commanded wholly with the sole intent of bringing about his end, of pinning him against the side with the edges of their swords and guns while he commanded all that he knew of fear as to discourage their furious eyes: every other moment he found yet another throat to cut, another white temple hidden only by strands of hair stuck fast and pulled loose. Somewhere within the midst of all the chaos, although, a grin had found him and was working its mirth into his mounting bloodlust, encouraging the need to leave the dead in his wake, and only the dead. Terror was akin to delight.
"Remember who you have given the privilege of ending your life," he whispered to many of the fallen, smiling even still, spitting upon their corpses without reluctance. He didn't care for every moment he happened to stumble and was bidden to reach for the rigging to steady himself, but fired away all the while at those who rushed to meet him, ceasing only once the final bullet was reached. Every moment carried with it an explicit, enlightening sense of invincibility, unbroken and unheeded, a reckless thrill.
For a moment, he did not even believe it was reality or even something greater than the cusp of a dream when he was seized by the collar, spine brought back to meet the mast at the helm with an impact and momentum that left him winded, and a knife was soon found to have paused before where it could easily pierce his innards. The lieutenant sputtered on, tangled in his own words, spurred by an absurdly potent desire for vengeance even when he had not been wronged.
"Let the filth be buried out of sight!" was the only truly audible thing Arthur caught from the other man's lips. His accent was refined, almost pleasant to the ear, and Arthur was reminded exceedingly strangely of himself; there was a touch of familiarity, even, to when he was so caught in his blazing triumph that the fire was still in his eyes and heat still in his breath even when he came away with silver buried in his gut, and his head lolled to the side. Blood clots flew from his mouth, and Arthur was breathing hard, lurching back the knife and allowing the blood to pour forth. The body slumped against one of the lieutenant's own, leaving Arthur with naught but a heavy mind and reddened hands as he straightened. He refused to believe it had been fear; he refused to believe that the only thought that had been running through his head was relative to demise. He refused to believe that there was a fresh gash along the length of his arm, hot and dripping, and that it had been the lieutenant's doing.
"Push forward," he cried, trying desperately to remember whether or not his own sword hung at his waist. He had to pull himself away from clear sight, both shaded and lit by the sails above set aflame, hurriedly reloading the flintlock and ensuring the powder kept dry. "Push forward!"
He fell to a kneel, lungs heaving for breath, wiping away warm blood from his right arm. He could not dare to pause, could not dare to allow them to have any sort of advantage or opening, yet all at once his energy had left him. He was frozen. A hand groped at the deck, desperate to find where his weapons had clattered to the surface; it took more effort than he could have imagined merely in order to raise a limb, let alone find one that wasn't bleeding. He sharply inhaled, livid beyond even the boundaries of his own common sense; he was paralysed, and could not even comprehend why.
Through the haze he faintly noticed the approach of a foreign silhouette, one which held a gilded firearm in their fingers, one which they reloaded clumsily and slowly. They stopped, paused, turned - it seemed that they were clambering through the smoke, from where Arthur lay, appearing triumphant beyond belief. "We've waited long enough now for you to die," he said, voice extraordinarily plain and smooth. It's a voice of oak, thought Arthur, and for a moment he was all romanticism and whimsy, his head thick with a dull heaviness. "Pity that this sort of end will shame you. Can't be helped, though; can't be helped."
Arthur laughed through his teeth. "Rot in your own Hell."
He barely heard the gun go off. He barely registered that he was once more covered in blood that was somehow not his own, or that his pistol was emptied. All he had time to do was hiss a pained cry before the ship tilted, rust and salt were on his tongue, and he found himself drenched to the bone, redness drifting all about him.
Instinct brought panic, but oddly, panic gave way to the allure of ignorance and distraction as seawater fought to fill his lungs; his wounds were on fire, his eyes blinded and mind a flurry of all the most peculiar thoughts imaginable, and all he could make sense of was the dark form of the vessels above. Still they remained in the midst of conflict, shrouded in smoke and with their cannons still blazing, senselessly prolonging a battle that had doubtlessly already gathered a considerable death toll. His idle observations were confirmed as the soundless atmosphere about him was broken by the fall of a corpse, missing an ear and with a strange sort of gash through the middle of a hand, as though a knife had been driven through it. Poor soul, he concluded to himself, but still he couldn't tell whether the cadaver was even one of his own.
Breathing water, he brought a hand to his own eyes. The discord persisting above was warped to his ears, yet it was at the same time, the same confronting moment, that he had his first glimpse behind Heaven's gates.
The song, distant and beautiful, was what granted him consciousness; it brought him to his senses, yet it also brought him to air, which he gasped in as he breached the surface, struck by light. Mind chaotic, he was uncertain as to what ought to have been dominating his thoughts or even invading them as he found himself at the ship's bow, grasping at the edges, fingers slipping on the blood and searching for a hold he wondered whether it was really worth grasping for. The sea, for a reason he couldn't fathom, lay metres beneath him, and above the rigging moaned just as another of Arthur's men was pierced clean through and shot down. Now, although, the rain seemed eager to sweep the gristle away (it was rain he had not been aware enough to hear, aware enough to notice, even as it had gathered amidst the sunlight's glare), and so it was far less easy to notice the pools of blood lying at the spines of dead men with flesh exposed to the gale. After two hours, the conflict had certainly lessened, however, and no longer was it difficult to breathe with the sheer number of men all having drawn their weapons at once - bullets were low and the cannons spent, so now it was all brutality and knives through the neck, limbs practically severed in places on mens' bodies, eyes fuelled by nothing except ferocity.
He had time enough, still, to be rash, to be thoughtless. "It's our opportunity," he muttered to one of the men as he staggered by, seizing him by the sleeve, jerking his own hand toward where the Navy's ship-of-the-line lay apparently abandoned, unattended by either side. "Gather a handful of survivors and gather all the supplies you may find."
He answered indelicately. "That is the quartermaster's authority, not your own."
Arthur's hold on the other man tightened, his skin strained, his mind fully willing to disregard all questions about why he stood sopping wet, more so than the rain had yet had the chance to render him, and why his pistol vacant from his hip, about why his common sense had been killed somewhere along the line. "Do you think I give a damn? I have seen the corpse, I saw his eyes fade! This is not our concern now. We've lost enough. Get what you can before the rain grows heavier."
"It would be mad of us to attempt it! How do we know that more do not linger beneath the stern?"
"If you refuse then by God, I will have another take your place! You will keep the questions from your lips until all of them lie dead!"
"They fly the English flag--"
His voice was rising, ignorant to the danger it was placing them near, focused upon the current trial. "And we are not privateers! What do I care for obligation? Their understanding of God-forsaken patriotism is completely dissimilar to ours. Had I wanted to be allied with them, I would've already wasted my time pursuing a Letter of Marque. Our flag stays red."
Both hesitated, both fretting over their bloodied skin with clammy fingers, eyes tired. The seaman, although, appeared to be at Death's door. "I cannot argue with you any longer about this. But I know the Devil will take you, Kirkland. God will forsake you this night."
"Only in your eyes may it be so."
Truly enough, Arthur could not gather the means or motivation necessary to respond, much less respond with the livid spite that he had already recognised as being rampant in his mind. He observed the steady pace of his comrade, the stirring cries and calls to battle that he obediently incited, drawing upon the generous allegiance of the others in order to create his order of attackers; the gunfire continued, but was considerably more intermittent, and at last they were able to push forwards, to board the ship-of-the-line.
Later, he would certainly regard as a miracle the moment when he noted the silence all about him, and had the moment to intercept the dagger half-buried below his ribs (although, of course it may just have well been because of the slow pain, the excruciating realisation); his exhale was quick, his inhale was blunted, his exclamation caught on a clot of blood.
He turned, seizing the hilt, stumbling much against his own will, and his left shoulder blade found one of the masts.
This time, his breathing came in short gasps, broken up further as he talked.
Every part of him yearned for rest, yet in a moment the attacker was right before his eyes, the embroidery of his fine coat betraying his rank, his sword drawn from the sheath, and Arthur debated with himself over how it had been that he had mustered anything close to a will to resist the blow, evidenced by the collision of their swords, clasped limp in the hand that could not grasp around the dagger still imbedded in his side (strangely, the blade felt light and thin in his fingers). The foreign sword bore down, the wood behind at Arthur's spine; the metal was weighted with blood, crushing his resistance beneath it as well as the mere force of the man above him, who was without wounds, without injury, without thought.
Arthur raised his chin, fighting to ensure his eyes would not waver or glance away from those before him. Still, he gushed blood. "Your men are exhausted. It's easy enough to see where they've fallen. Why not tend to them rather than stab me in the back? Perhaps then I would not consider you so degraded."
"Your thoughts of me are of the utmost worthlessness. My men have gone about their duties with purpose, and I would not have stopped them. As for your own, although - I cannot speak for them."
"They raid your vessel as we speak; are you honestly not yet aware? I will enjoy seeing you limp home, assuming that your own cowardice will not drive you to suicide before then." Arthur spat upon his enemy's boots, injecting vindictiveness into his words regardless of whether or not he realised it. He felt nothing other than detestation, nothing more than the desire to murder. His voice lowered, deepening. "This victory isn't yours."
Something remarkably, bewilderingly close to sympathy was in the answerer's eyes, though his words still remained crafted from the same steel as beforehand, and his lips stretched into something not quite a grimace, yet not quite a smile, either. Arthur didn't know what to make of it. "Take a look about you, Kirkland. What do you see?" All at once the pressure was gone and the sword was raised, bringing with it a bare second of indulgent relief, before the hand which had held the hilt of the blade came to Arthur's throat, forcing it upward, thumb and middle finger at his ears. Arthur clawed the man's knuckles, but his words shook as he cussed repeatedly and heavily, still unwilling to believe that things were the way they seemed. Through the rain the smoke had cleared a little, enabling a largely open view of the other vessel's deck; as Arthur had expected, the atmosphere was still and the conflict was ebbing away to a dying force, and yet still he could hear a cacophony of cries. After a few moments, he was disturbed to note that there seemed an order to these shouts, spaced neatly apart from one another.
"You see, Kirkland, the intent behind our discovery of that Spanish ship was that it practically guaranteed we would be able to predict your next actions - if you were so desperate as to murder Spaniards in the hope of regaining their supplies, it was a simple enough matter to suppose that you would be starving. Thus, a number of sailors we kept in reserve below deck, knowing eventually the move would be made. It was only a matter of time before it occurred, and now, you have signed their death warrants. It was this or the gibbet."
The executions were sequential - each took a bullet to the head, crumpling as they were struck, corpses littering the ocean.
For the first time all evening, Arthur truly could not breathe. He had never known such disgrace. He had never known such revulsion.
It almost felt natural when he plunged the dagger from his side into the throat of the captain, and the wound pained dully for attendance. It felt right as the body fell and he scavenged it for a firearm, snatching up the corpse's flintlock and not even bothering to search it for signs of ammunition. All premonition and reserved conduct had decayed from his person. It was effort enough to contemplate why he was acting so recklessly, not a consideration spared to survival. After all, it was easier to dismiss any suspicions of guilt, or shame for having driven a dozen men to their deaths because thoughtlessness had been the easier, shorter path, at least while still in the midst of conflict. Now, although, it was demeaning as much as it was inconceivable.
The first shot struck below one sailor's knee; the second struck through the lower back of another; the third missed entirely. His hands trembled as he stood there, prepared to draw his knife, and soaked in blood - he was formidable, but still he knew he was young, and in his mind there was already the realisation he had longed and tried to suppress. It was only as he was disarmed and surrounded, hands seized and bound, yelling off his head, mad with grief, and completely disbelieving, did he let it come.
Victory was dead, and he was a murderer.
"There's blood on your hands."
Arthur nodded, and turned away.
Indeed, the observation was correct, both figuratively and literally. The men had conferred, even with their close proximity and feet soaked in bilgewater, hands shackled, that a new captain was to be chosen.
"You are stripped of your captaincy. It was considered that you ought to have been flogged, but that opportunity has now lessened to nothing. Consider yourself fortunate." As was the case with the rest, his tone carried an element of disdain, the abhorrence still lingering within the eyes, but for the time being it was softened.
"I would prefer it," replied Arthur, idly pulling at his shackles, tasting salt on his lips, and he was unsurprised to note that the response was a bewildered turn of the head; he had barely spoken in the past eight days, uttering only what was required, giving silence to the officers. It was remarkable, really, that anyone still bothered to attempt to encourage words from him, when the only real things on his mind were thoughts of burials, of regret, of a ship set alight and riddled with holes, the stench of burning corpses clogging up the air--
"I am not a convict," he remarked quite suddenly. The unseeing look temporarily dissipated, giving way to a senseless obstinance. His speech turned garbled and rapid, deprived of any good it may once have possessed. "I was on the account at fourteen, you realise. Fourteen. Nine years have gone by since then, and here I lie, in such a place and time that may as well have already rendered me dead. It ought to have already ended. Then I could be grateful."
Silence infiltrated the lower regions of the ship, bringing with it several minutes of detachment, which Arthur had favoured the last week far over human company. His misery burned behind his eyes, and he laid his head upon his knees, tired in every context imaginable. He scarcely flinched as a number of the men began a rousing hymn, throbbing note after throbbing note which resounded oddly beneath his skin, like a substitute for a heartbeat. It was deep and it was melancholy and it was beautiful, but he was not stirred into anything much other than what he already felt, and longed for the blood in his ears to drown it.
Momentarily, his skin quivered with the memory of the encounter, that aria from beneath a sea that ought to have pulled him under and claimed his lungs; he raised his head, trying fruitlessly to recall the finer details, but wound up with nothing other than a humourless laugh on his lips.
"We will be hanged," Arthur answered, still laughing, and then nothing more.
"Bring them up. It's been three days, and we may as well."
They did not make any attempt to force him to eat his grant of rations when the hour came; he did not know whether to be surprised, but regardless he was herded up onto the highest deck with the others in a compact, sweating, stinking throng, the blood from a fortnight previous having dried on their skin, and expected to do the same as the rest. It was an invitation to breathe clean air and have the space to make use of their limbs, and still Arthur felt he had merely entered the deeper circle of Hell. Their eyes kept on him with every stumbling move of his legs, the subdued groans of agony. His wounds were untreated. His throat was dry. Beneath their authority, he was little other than a convict.
Glancing up, his gaze aching against the sun, it was peculiar to see the unfamiliar flag above, flying from masts far taller than what he was accustomed, shielded by what seemed to be acres of canvas. Stepping away from the rest, his eyes fell to the deck. There, upon those boards, he had watched them be shot - there, he had relinquished common sense for the sake of an unplanned endeavour devoid of thought. He felt like a carcass, himself, dry-lipped and with nothing but bitterness to speak, in part an accompaniment to the reservedness he had adopted.
"Fifteen minutes," said one of the sailors, still clutching tight to the metal of his shackles. His fingers went to unlock them, but at the last moment he hesitated, and had to be encouraged by one of his superiors to finish the job. Still, he mumbled disconsolately, and had stepped back before his words were even audible. It did not help, Arthur supposed, that he had been cursing under his breath all the while, all disjointed damnation and cusses, aiming to breed unease, only loud enough to be heard by them alone.
Arthur took the moment to tear himself away, steeling his senses as much as he did his eyes - a flintlock was pulled in retaliation, cocked and loaded, barrel at his skull, but he kept wordless, looking to the rigging above and the shrouds at the sides. It was of such an intricacy and complexity that he was surprised it had not knotted itself, or caved in unto the futtocks lined between. "We would prefer to keep your body intact for the crowds. Mind yourself, Kirkland."
He barely heard the words, far too occupied with his own thoughts, the roar in his mind and the internal vendetta against his own skin, the hatred he couldn't quell. He was humiliated, and not had even his own dignity to prolong himself nor his desires. There was nothing to motivate, nothing to compel. To stand there, demeaned and ridiculed, was quite enough, in itself.
He could scarcely think, so entirely controlled by a sudden fury, so much so that when the song sounded, he believed it was simply his own mind echoing back the hymns often drawn from the others' throats. He didn't believe it was in any way similar to the last encounter, when he had been longing to drown.
And yet, he still did not bestow himself with the time or patience required to draw sense. He simply lowered the gun from his temple, brushed past the vessel's shrouds, and ran.
The actuality of his circumstances and bound wrists struck him only once he was inundated, winded, gasping for air yet revelling in the water's chill, with the song having swelled to such volume in his ears that it ought to have deafened him (in that case, although, he would at least never be able to hear anything else ever again). He was tossed about, water sloshing over his skin, rising up to meet him, and he allowed it. He lacked the energy to repel it and turn back to security - it was better to be with the corpses and the ashes, in a realm both revered and despised. It was far better to be dragged underneath by the weight of his shackles, to once more not be restrained under the authority of another. It was better to not have to consider how quickly he had fallen from grace.
The water seized him; it dragged out his breath. A voice rang clear, strangely lacking in the distorted quality it ought to have had, prolonging the time it took him to notice that the waves were over his head and that he could no longer breathe, drifting in the hold of a creature that laughed in his face. Fingers rested at his temples, pausing at his lips.
"I wondered whether we would meet, Arthur," said the voice, words dripping with a surprising clarity, come forth from beautiful lips. "I could have seen you drown, of course, but it is intriguing to see how minds will regress."
He did not understand how, but his own voice was similarly audible and plain, although dulled in comparison. He stuttered a singular word, and regretted it immediately. It was a waste of time, of life. "Why?"
"I did call to you, once, but then you mistook my voice, and before that I was unknown."
"You have been here always. In God's name, it has been you that--" His lungs were filling, and he did not give it a thought. Any other time and he would have undoubtedly wrung her neck, driven a stiletto through her skull. Now, although, his usual pragmatism was extinguished.
She interrupted him, fingers slipping against his jaw, scales at her waist. "Arthur, I brought you air. I let you live long enough for your despair to take root, for you to reach such a state that you would not be afraid to give your life. You would no longer be afraid to respond, and you would come to me."
The statement brought both solace and a need to recoil, yet still her voice was the loveliest thing he had heard, and he yearned for nothing more than to remain. He responded to her touch, killed by temptation. He leant toward it, indulged in respite.
"Do you wish for rest?"
"I wish to longer believe death has come about all by my own doing. There is far too much to consider. Is it too great for me to want to escape their supremacy?" he bit out. All at once the gunshot was fresh in his mind, and he could envisage the slump of a corpse. He could imagine the warmth of the blood and the salt against his wounds (he did, at least, until it became apparent that perhaps the vision was something more truthful than he had initially believed). "What would I be otherwise? What would I be without the weight on my mind?" His thoughts were spilling before he could prevent it. He was confiding in a creature of which he knew nothing, and was incapable of making it so that it was otherwise. At the time, it seemed appropriate that it should be spoken, that she should be made aware.
"You would be a murderer," she answered, and he did not even have the time to note her twisted expression before lips were pressed to his and water in his throat, drowning out his final breath. He choked, sputtered, heaved; his pulse quieted beneath where she had snatched at his wrists.
He was dead, cradled in her arms, limbs soft. She pulled herself away, hold loosening. Her hand crossed his forehead downwards.
"Now there is no need to see blood. You will see only beautiful things, worth preserving in your mind."
She smiled, her words wistful, expression ridden of its pity.
"Rest in peace, you son of a bitch."