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In the King's Name

"There weren't always dragons in the Valley."

By Maggie StancuPublished 2 years ago 12 min read

“There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.”

The groans and grumblings of bone-weary sailors fill the ship, banishing the terrible silence below decks and the unease trying to worm its way into my belly. Randall’s at it again, the mad bastard, and I can’t say I’m not grateful for the interruption of the relentless fucking quiet. The same can’t be said for the rest of the men.

“I swear to fucking God, Randall, if you don’t shut up-”

“Wait, what did he say?” He’s new, this one, and just a lad. He told me his name before we set sail…Kip, I think. Poor kid. All the men jump down his throat.

“Oh, don’t ask-"

“There weren’t always dragons in the Valley,” Randall says again in that same, monotonous tone.

“Here we fucking go,” someone sighs. I crack a smile.

“There are dragons in the Valley?” Kip asks.

“You’ve done it now, Randall,” O’Shea murmurs.

“Yeah,” Stowe groans. “Plenty of ‘em live down in the mountains, but the fuckers come out every now and again to eat.” He sounds like he’s rolling over as he talks. “The first place they go searching is the Valley.”

“What about the people?”

“People don’t live there no more,” Stowe mutters.

“What do they do for food?”

I bite down hard on my lip to stop from laughing as the men continue their bellyaching. The lad’s like a dog with a bone.

“I ain’t fucking around, Stowe,” someone, Fraser, I think, grumbles. “Shut him up.”

Stowe’s hammock is almost across from mine, a little closer to the bow, and I see him pull himself to a sitting position. He rubs his eyes, exasperated and exhausted with more, I’m guessing, than just the conversation. “What?” he asks.

“You said people don’t live there,” Kip says. “What do the dragons do for food?” The kid’s earnest, a rare thing in these waters.

“Are you serious?” I imagine Stowe’s aiming for intimidating, and it might work on the boy, but I’d say his expression strikes more amusement than terror. “Do I look like a fucking dragon to you?”

Kip looks properly confused, like he’s waiting for someone to tell him what to do. “No?” he squeaks, uncertain.

A couple of the men start chuckling. Stowe rubs his eyes again, this time with the heels of his palms. “Where the fuck did they find this guy?”

“I don't know,” O’Shea mumbles. “Some shit-hole off the coast of the Drear, I think.”

Stowe snorts. “God, they’re getting desperate for hands, ain’t they?”

I can’t hold back my laughter at that one, and neither can the rest of the crew. Every last man is howling, all except little Kip, who still looks like he’s waiting for someone to tell him what to do.

The guffaws turn to chuckles, the chuckles to sighs, and sooner than I’d like, the silence returns. It’s sadistic, crawling over the cabin and slinking into my hammock, settling itself deep in my chest, deeper in my bowels. I’d open my own guts to get it out, but that’s the cruel joke, ain’t it? We’ve a taste of silence in life, an eternity of silence in death.

I need the rest. God knows I need the rest, but I can’t face this fucking silence. I need the racket, the clattering of the crew to drown out the noise in my head, the petty squabbles to let slip the horrors in my past. But they’re not in my past, are they? They’re behind my eyes. They’re in my lungs. They’re on my fucking hands.

I need the rest.

I need the bickering. Second mate choosing to sleep with the crew, rather than my own quarters, of course I need the fucking bickering.

I need the noise, the company.

I need anything but this fucking-

“All hands! All hands on deck!”

The bells start ringing, frantically ringing, with raised voices coming from the main. I’m the first dressing while the others haul themselves to their feet, groaning as they go.

“What's going on?” Kip asks, his voice all a tremble.

“Maybe it’s a dragon,” Stowe smirks, bursting fully into laughter when he sees the horror on Kip’s face.

“Laugh while you can, Stowe.” Hayes comes down from the main, grabbing his sword and pistol from the nail beside his hammock. “It ain’t dragons.”

“What, then?” Stowe asks, still chuckling.

Hayes glances at each one of us before setting his mouth in a grim line. “Pirates.”

Any clever remark Stowe had must have caught in his throat. There ain’t laughter left in any of us.

“How near is the ship?” It’s the first time I’ve spoken all night.

“Ships,” Hayes corrects me. Fuck. “Brig and a sloop, southwest and northeast, and they’re closer than you’d like.”

The rest of the men look to me, all but Kip, who doesn’t know where to look. I give 'em a tight nod, and that’s all they need to start moving quickly. Stowe gives Kip a clap on the back. “Keep your head up, kid,” he murmurs.

I climb up onto the main deck of the Deference, narrowly avoiding a collision with a panicked deckhand. We’re well into the night, with only lanterns and moonshine to guide us. The great star is near its fullest, but only just peeking behind the clouds that have swallowed the rest.

“Someone bring me a glass,” I call out. One of the watches, Payce, hurries alongside, glass in hand, as I make my way to the rails. It seems I won’t need it. Even in the dark, I can see the sloop. “How the fuck did they get this close?”

Payce is shaking, his eyes darting from one place to another, trying to pick the answer out of the fucking sky. “They just lit their lanterns, sir, just before we rang the bells. They were sailing in the dark, I swear.”

“Yeah?” I grab him by the collar, pulling him close and smelling his breath. It reeks of rum. The others share his guilty look. I’d guess they also share his breath, his stupidity, his fucking obliviousness that might have just gotten every man on this crew killed.

I push him back, wishing I could take pleasure in the way he stumbles. “Get back in line,” I growl. “Wait for our orders.”

I hasten to the quarterdeck, where the Captain and Preston, the first mate, stand by the rails, staring anxiously into the night. “Captain Williams.”

He turns his head, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. “Mr. Strong.”

“The sloop will be on us in minutes, sir. The brig shortly after.”

He takes a moment before giving a curt nod. “Strike our colours, Mr. Strong.”

“Strike the colours!” I yell. Mr. Payce takes no pause in obeying my command, scurrying round the deck like a rat in the bilge.

“What of the cargo, sir?” Preston asks.

The Captain falls silent a moment before turning from the rail. It could be the moonshine, but I’m almost certain those are tears swimming in his eyes. He looks down at the deck, at his boots, not at either of us. “What of it,” he says, his voice cracking on the last word. It seems more statement than question. He leaves us, head hanging low as he moves towards his quarters.

We watch him go, Pres and I, the weight of command feeling a heavier burden than it did a few minutes ago. “He’ll be preparing the ship’s manifest, I expect, in the hopes of an easy transfer of cargo,” I say.

Pres turns to face me. “If they get their hands on it-”

“I know.” I know the end of that thought, I don’t need to hear it spoken. “Take four men,” I say quietly. “Hide it, dump it, whatever you can, do it.” Pres nods and start to move, but I grab his arm before he can walk away. “Do it quickly.” The rest of it remains unsaid. You don’t have long. God have mercy if they catch you.

He gives me another nod and smiles, something too nervous to be genuine. “See you on the other side, brother.” He hurries to the main, choosing the men as he goes and disappearing below decks, where just minutes ago I was praying for anything to disrupt the incessant silence. God answered. That’s a first.

Near the entire crew of the Deference are on deck, all save Pres and the four he took with him, and they all have the same look in their eyes. Something grim and fearful, but it’s more than that. There’s hope, too; a forced hope. They’re trying to convince themselves this is all a wild adventure. They’ll tell the story of the night their ship got raided by pirates over drinks in some whorehouse. One day, they might even laugh about it. They don’t realize that what they really want, what they’re really trying to convince themselves of is that one day actually exists. They ain’t ready to look death in the face. They ain’t been through war.

Captain Williams has joined us, manifest in hand, but he doesn’t share the look of his crew. He doesn’t share their fear. His hope is honest, if not misguided, but there’s something in him that knows, just as I do. We ain’t getting out of this.

I find my place on the main, with the rest of the men. Williams waits alone on the quarterdeck. He’s not noticed the absence of his first mate. God willing, it’ll stay that way.

The sloop’s approach is swift and sudden. She’s on us faster than I thought she’d be, the brig hardly a minute behind her. Her crews overtake the Deference without a struggle, prowling about the decks with foul grins as they push us to our knees.

Two of ‘em wholly ignore us, heading to the quarterdeck where Williams stands, resolute. One's tall, more rawboned than lean, looking out of place in the midst of this rugged lot, but the other…he ain’t what I expect.

Captain of a pirate crew, I imagined he’d tower over the rest, a great hulking thing, more monster than man. There’s something primal about him, to be sure, but he’s too elegant to be considered a beast. Elegant is an odd word for it, but that’s what he is. His power is quiet, but I can feel it coming off him, all the same. I can see it in the eyes of his men.

He stands before Williams without saying a word. “Captain,” Williams nods. “The ship is yours. You’ll find our manifest in order, and meet no resistance from my men.” The Captain takes the manifest, lazily passing it to the tall one. His quartermaster, presumably, who wears a wry, wicked grin as he reads the papers.

“Ten casks of Scathe,” he says, the arrogance of victory ringing clear in his words. They'll take the rest, too, but it's the Scathe they're here for. God knows what they'll do with it.

The Captain nods and murmurs something, too quiet for the rest of us to hear, but it ain’t hard to guess. Seven men head below decks, led by a woman with dark hair. In the light of the lanterns, it looks red. It might be.

It ain’t two minutes before they’re back on deck, hauling the first mate and the others up by their necks. The woman drops Pres before the Captain while Williams looks on, finally sharing in the fear of his crew.

“Caught this one dumping the oil out of one of the gun ports,” she says, shoving Pres further down on his knees.

The Captain’s face doesn’t change. “How much?” he asks, his voice hard.

“About half a cask, I’d reckon.”

He smiles something cruel, hands behind his back as he turns to Williams. “You’ll meet no resistance from my men,” he all but sneers.

“I swear to you, sir, I had no-”

The Captain grabs Williams by the hair, what little of it he has, and smashes his head against the rail, hard enough to lose teeth, but not consciousness. “I don’t much like liars,” he snarls as Williams whimpers, choking on his own blood. His hand moves to the hilt of his sword. I step forward before he can use it.

“I gave the order.”

Four words, small in the scheme of things, but they hold enough weight to shift the eyes of every man, and woman, for that matter, to my person. The Captain turns his head slow, looking me up and down like a predator. I’ve heard talk from the hunters, the look in a dragon’s eye before they strike. It knows there’ll be no battle. It’s already won. Just by existing, it’s won. He has that same look in his eye, now, as he stalks towards me.

It’s the first time he’s looked at any of our crew, aside from Williams, and something like recognition crosses his face. He points a finger, all but wagging it in my face. “I know you,” he says in a low voice, his eyes narrowed.

“I doubt it,” I say.

“Yeah?” He paces a few moments before turning back, leaning down. “The Duchess. You sailed on the Duchess a few years back.”

It catches me off guard. “Did you serve?” I ask him.

He straightens as he smiles. I can’t read it. I can’t read him, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t terrify me. “I was there when you raided Saint-Hugo,” he says.

Fuck. I try not to flinch. I know I don’t succeed. The silence returns but I can’t fill it. I can’t seem to find my voice at all.

“I lost some of my crew that night,” he says. “You can imagine…we weren’t prepared for a fight. Course, we weren’t the targets, were we?”

I can’t fucking speak.

“No,” the Captain continues. “No, it was the men who lived there…and the women.”

“And the kids,” the woman spits out.

“And the kids,” he repeats. “You fucking privateers,” he hisses. “You fuckers did the same shit we did-”

“Worse,” she says.

“Worse,” he agrees, “but you did it for the King. You did it in the King’s name, with the King’s fucking blessing, so they called it brave. They called it just.” He leans down, again, his face in mine. “Tell me,” he pauses, “did it feel just?”

It didn’t. It wasn’t. The kids…in all that sadistic silence, I hear the kids. I hear them all. I can’t say it. I can hardly bear to feel it. So, I say the same thing I’ve said a million times over, every night since the raid. “We were at war.” My voice is strong, stronger than it has any right to be, but I can’t feel my fucking throat.

“We were at war,” the Captain repeats my words slowly, tasting them as he pulls out his pistol. He smirks, a dark thing that doesn’t reach his eyes. There’s no mirth in it, just a savage fury. A beast, after all. He raises the pistol to my head. “Still are.”


About the Creator

Maggie Stancu

(she/they/he) writer of sad, spooky, and supernatural things.

Twitter: maggiestancu

Instagram: maggiestancu

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