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Historical Fiction

“My lady the sea, so vast and grand.


She beckons to me from beyond the land.


I set sail with the Albatross, far and free


Till I reach my desti-”


“QUIET!” 


The lone singer was suddenly silenced by a booming voice, followed by a clattering of scrubbers and scrambling of boots as the men working upon the deck sprung to their feet at attention. A blue clad, white wigged admiral made his way through the sea of dusty servants until he reached the musical perpetrator, a young lad in disheveled garments, frozen under the superior’s sour gaze.


“Percival Hatch,” the uniformed man stated in a scolding tone, “It is half past noon, yet you carry yourself like a celebrating drunkard. If you worked as much as you sang you would have finished the deck by now. Work. Silently.”


“Aye sir!” Squawked Percival with a sharp salute. With a nod from the admiral everyone went back to scrubbing of the worn ship deck. A few other deckhands stifled their chuckles, and Percival sealed his lips for the rest of the afternoon, allowing the billowing of the sails in the wind and the creaking wood of the ship to claim the newfound stillness. 


The Lady Mercy was a fine vessel, a beauty of a ship built for battle and adventure, her skin adorned in brilliant gold and red colors that shone in the daylight, though Percival could argue her crew of the British Royal Navy soiled the ship’s majesty. His fellow men were as friendly as sea urchins and had the humor of his late grandfather- God rest his soul. They certainly were not like Percival’s usual crowds, though this wasn't his usual place. He never thought himself much of a sailor; he was a musician by trade, a man of the arts, though the times were not forgiving on men such as he.


His dreams did not belong on the sea, they belonged on land, on a stage, before adoring crowds with his mandolin in one hand and a heavy mug of ale in the other. But cheer and music do not keep pirates from terrorizing both land and sea, and his dreams have all but sunk to the watery depths. There is simply no room for music when the threat of pirates crowd the minds of the people. 


Most young men, such as Percival, filed into the navy as their usual daily work became stale. He wouldn't have considered himself much of a sailor, which is likely why he ended up swabbing the decks of the navy vessel or clamoring behind the cook. Surely, he hoped, when he signed his name to the sea he’d have some promise of keeping his passions alive. He would have thought the navy would be more welcoming to the jovial tunes he could provide, but it seemed more than a few of his superiors had their boots too far up their unmentionables. 


“Oi, chin up Percy,” whispered another swabber who graced Percival with a sympathetic gaze. “Once they realize this pirate hunting business is rubbish, we’ll be headed straight back home, and you back to your tunes.”


Considering how still the waters have been the past few weeks, Percival felt inclined to believe in that sliver of hope. But of course, things were never quite that simple. 


As the bright gleam of noon waned into the warm glow of dusk, Percival was down with the cook, scrubbing away at the grimey pots and pans. His hands ached from the persistent brushing as he wished they could instead be strumming his mandolin. As he took heart in the prospects of retiring to his cot for the night, there came a sudden thundering, like a storm had suddenly rolled in. It only took a moment longer for Percival to realize it was the beating of drums above deck, the dreaded song of an attack.  


The ship jostled to life with the clattering of men all scattering to their stations, the pounding of boots against the deck working in harmony with the persistent drums. The command to beat to quarters was shouted clear as a choir and soon cannons were bursting in a magnificent bass. The grand symphony of war erupted all around him, though it was a performance Percival could hardly enjoy. Stuck below deck, Percy had little idea how such an attack came so swiftly, but he didn't need to see the enemy to know who had the upper hand. Cannon balls had shredded through the lower hull, sending the sea rushing in at an alarming rate. The Lady Mercy now seemed to be at the mercy of her enemy. Percival’s heart strummed a frantic tune in his chest as his focus turned cold in fear of the growing gravity of his situation. 


They were being boarded. He could tell from the rain of gunfire and the clashing of metal from above. Soon he would be swarmed by pirates, and he'd likely end up skewered at the end of a cutlass. Percival couldn't quell the tremble in his hands as he clutched his pistol tightly. He was caught in a crowd of men all charging towards the upper deck to meet the battle. Percy didn't want to die, not like this, but there was no use cowering inside a ship that was filling with water. 


As he and the remaining men bust from below, they were met with a harrowing sight. There were hardly any uniforms left standing, their numbers overwhelmed by the ravenous invaders who infected their deck. At their side, a monstrous ship loomed over their dying vessel like the visage of death itself, coming to claim Percival and the few men left. It was like a black phantom that swallowed the remainder of the setting sun, and upon its mast proudly waved a flag of skull and crossbones. Some tried to join the fight, but they were swallowed by swords and chaos in an instant. The enemy surrounded them, their jeering faces closing in and smothering whatever hope they thought they had of victory. 


It was the last thing he saw before Percy felt a great crack against his temple, and his world went black.


Percival slowly awoke to what he first thought was knocking, which turned out to be the merciless throb of the wound in his head. Slowly but surely, his senses began to gather with his gradual consciousness, like the rough texture of the floor against his cheek and the damp chill in the air that grazed his skin. However, what worried him most was the cold grasp of steel around his wrists.


Captured. The revelation was clear as he noted the few familiar faces around him, all chained and stuffed together in an unfamiliar cell, the sting of defeat fresh in their eyes and their wounds. Some muttered frantic prayers under their breaths while others struggled against their binds, clinging to their sense of duty as if hope was still an option. Percival knew better. He propped himself up against the cage in a more comfortable position and simply sat in silence, contemplating his newfound fate.


If the stories were true, then he had possibly a few options. Death by sword, death by pistol, death by beating, or death by drowning. He had quite the plethora to choose from. Or if the stories were less true, he may even have a chance of survival, though Percival knew it was best not to keep his hopes up. He was barely useful as a seaman to begin with. 


Sounds of celebration hailed from above, likely the pirates enjoying their spoils after their successful battle. Percival could recognize a few muffled tunes, and soon he found himself humming tiredly along to the distant music. Even in the most dire situations, music was his stronghold, a tether to the light when things seem darkest. It was a comfort he could always turn to no matter where he was, and heaven knows he would be needing it. For soon came a rumbling of footsteps from somewhere above, gradually growing louder and louder until a gaggle of pirates stormed view. 


The small cluster of prisoners were dragged by their chains above deck, greeted by the collective jeers of their new captors. The night air smelled of smoke and drink, barely stifling the stench of a battle just recently won. As they were all bound tightly to the mast as trophies on display, a looming figure stepped forward from the crowds. The dim lantern lights hinted at his wild, grinning gaze, his beard was long and feral, and upon his hat sprung a crimson plume. It was a face fit for those harrowing tales of barbaric pirates that Percival knew all too well.


“My friends,” he greeted in a devilish tone. “We welcome aboard my ship The Albatross as honored guests. Some of you more temporary than others.” His cruel jest earned him a roar of laughter from his men, sending a cold chill down Percival’s spine. “In truth, how long you remain breathing upon my ship is entirely up to you. Use your reason and join us, or join your friends at the bottom of the sea.”


It was a kindness most cruel, though Percival was in no position to make complaints. The pirates cheered and thrust their mugs into the air, breaking into slurred chatter and song as the festivities continued. If there was any silver lining to his situation, Percival at least had a better chance at survival than he first believed. It depended on if they saw him better fit as a swabber than fish food. 


Percival did his best to keep his wits together as the pirates staggered around them in an ungraceful dance to the slurred shanties. He might as well enjoy the show before they inevitably dragged them back to the dank cell below. He knew most of the jostled tunes they played, accompanied by a few instruments though lacking the heavenly strum of a mandolin that Percival missed so dearly. It was a nice distraction from his impending doom.


Upon a third round of songs about bidding farewell to spanish ladies, and Percival nodding haphazardly along, the boisterous singing slowly began to diminish. At first Percival didn't take much notice, until he realized more than a few eyes were looking his way.


“That's a lovely voice you have there,” chuckled the captain who Percival suddenly realized was quite close to his side. He swallowed instinctively as he realized that he must have been contributing more than just a silent head nod. “You play anything with that voice?”


Percival stumbled over his words, an eerie silence hanging over the deck until he finally stammered a reply. “Ah, aye sir. The m-mandolin, sir.” 


The fearsome captain gave a cat-like grin. “Well, just our luck then,” The captain gave a flick of his wrist towards a cluster of men who then dashed below deck. With another hand gesture, Percival, to his surprise, was released from his binds and chains and pulled to his feet. 


“I lost many good men today, men of talent and ability I cannot replace. Let's see if you can atone for that.”


Percival’s mind swirled in confusion, certain this was where he would meet his end. They freed him from his chafing binds just to patronize him, and he knew there was no fighting his way to freedom. But instead of a deadly blow, something was shoved into his chest, a long object that nearly fumbled out of his grasp. 


It was a mandolin. Percival’s hand traced its long slender neck, his fingers grazing the familiar strings. It had been long since he had held his favored instrument, yet it fit into his grasp so naturally. A voice in the crowd yelled for a song, joined by other shouts of agreement as the captain watched closely. Percival sucked in a deep, shaken breath, the pressure of his performance weighing down on him like never before. This was Percival’s atonement, and the most important performance of his life. 


His thumb glided over the strings, ringing the first notes of a tune into the night. His hands were slow at first, still trembling over each note change. He could feel every set of eyes piercing into his soul as he played on, and his lips quivering over the words of the gentle shanty he played. The more he strummed, the more he tried to consume himself in the music and drown out the worry that rattled in his chest. This wasn't any common bout of stage fight, but this was his passion, his life purpose, and not even his doomed fate would take that from him. He persisted with as much confidence and composure that he could muster, and he gradually became more and more engrossed into the song. The ship, the pirates, his fear and worry slowly began to melt away, leaving only he and the mandolin to perform in the peace of the night.


A scraggly voice nearly snapped him from his trace, but it was merely one of the frightful strangers joining along to the performance. It was a surprise at first, but Percival welcomed the accompaniment, simply glad to have some positive feedback. Then joined another, and another, all not quite in tune, but just enjoy to carry the shanty into a gleeful cheer with Percival right at the center. Soon the ship was back to its boisterous symphony of celebration, their voices filling the air with an inspirational energy that carried Percival through to a strong finale. There was a thunderous applause, and even the captain spared him an approving glance as Percy took a slight bow. Never before had he played for such a fearsome audience, yet felt so invigorated at its end. 


Percival would become quite accustomed to being dragged from his cell day after day to play some hearty tunes for his new company. The more played, the more comfortable he grew with the favor he found with the crew. Even his fellow captives had begun to warm to the generous offer of the pirates, despite how limited their choices. But to Percival, his choice had become clear. His hands were meant for more than just scrubbing ship decks. No, they were meant for his mandolin, to play his fine tunes for eager ears. And when he signed his name to The Albatross, his hands were finally freed from their binds and the binds of the service, now free to strum his music to his heart’s content. 


Percival often pondered if his decision was ‘right’, per say. His commanders would have called him a coward, his mates would call him a traitor. But hey, look at where they ended up? Percival still had breath in his lungs to sing and to perhaps one day plead his innocence in court if justice caught up to them. He may not know his way around this moral ambiguity, but he knew one thing for sure, he was content singing his heart out for crowds who cared, who valued his company and talent. He was thrust onto a path of adventure, and his story was far from over.

 

There was no telling what fate awaited him beyond the horizon, but for now, he would sail with the Albatross, far and free, until he reached his destiny.


February 01, 2020 04:40

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8 comments

K. Apple
17:34 Feb 07, 2020

Lovely writing, easy read, lovely good ol’ storytelling, which is trickier to pull off than most folks realize. Narrator’s voice matches the period, and feels great to read. Reads almost like a fable, the unfolding even of disastrous events in this narrator’s voice is calming, though the story itself still remains compelling. I like spending time with Percival. His way of dealing with misfortune is comforting. The great gift to me is the assertion to disregard conventional morality and be free/creative/happy. Now that’s a lovely gift yo...

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Cora V
01:02 Feb 08, 2020

Thank you so much for your kind feedback! I’m so so glad you enjoyed this and took the time to write such a lovely comment. I’ll admit I hadn’t been feeling confident in this for a little, but you have certainly reassured me. I really appreciate it and I hope I can continue to make things that you enjoy! 😁

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K. Apple
14:00 Jun 30, 2020

Hi Cora! I know months have passed but I’ve been thinking about your response here! I recently revisited the Reedsy contests, mainly to coax myself to write myself into getting more grounded emotionally! I came here to see if you had written another story. Got to say I’m not sure how anybody can get any writing done in this stressfully paced modern world - time is still a challenge for me even during sheltering. Just letting you know I’m looking forward to reading the next story you write whenever it flows from you! No pressure! I’ve chan...

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Cora V
18:30 Jun 30, 2020

Hey K! Honestly I forgot about this old piece till I got your notification, but wow am I glad I checked back in. You message is so so very sweet and uplifting and I don’t know how you knew, but I really needed to hear that. It is a wild world we’re in and I can’t say I’ve handled things great, and in it I lost sight of my goals and love for writing. A break is always nice but I’ve dropped my hobbies for much too long. I want to get back into this and I thank you so much for giving me the spark to start up again and just write! I feel so unwo...

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K. Apple
19:56 Jun 30, 2020

Yay! This is great! You never know who you will inspire, Ms. Cora! It’s none of your business to figure out how worthy your stories are, it’s your business to keep expressing. (That’s from that Martha graham quote- you probably know it, but I’ll send if you don’t). Re that little unworthy feeling, congratulations! Unworthy feelings are the most fun and productive to HEAL! They offer the best fruit when tilled with the soul soil, exposed to the healing microbes and sun! Would love you to read what I’ve written with the caveat that you ...

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Cora V
17:45 Jul 02, 2020

I would be honored to read your writing! My biggest struggle is that I have a hard time just sitting down and reading other works to learn from other people. I’m a busybody sitting still is hard for me sometimes haha. But I will certainly make some time to read yours! I’m so excited! Again just thank you for being so kind I feel really lucky to have met you!

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Alan Cooper
21:22 Nov 27, 2021

Cora, Thanks for sending it to me. I was impressed by your command of the language and the way you made the reader care for the musician. You painted a vivid picture of his situation in the limited space you had and showed how he relied on his talent to save himself. The adjectives and similes that you used were also fresh and interesting. I liked it.

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