Talon threw his hands up to his face and made a sudden intake of breath at the flash of white that almost blinded him.
Once certain his eyes had adjusted from the darkness of the hold, Talon slowly lowered his arms and took in his new surroundings.
Some of the ship’s crew danced about the length of the deck securing ropes and scrambling up the masts like spiders.
The three lateen sails whipping gently overhead in the breeze could only just be heard over the clamour and foot stamping of the crowd gathered under the quarterdeck.
The craggy-faced Captain leant over the quarterdeck, picking at his teeth with a dagger. His black trench coat hung over the railing, red lapels jiggling. A musty, yellowing vest, which may have been white at one time, exposed the curled silvery hair of his chest. His other hand held onto the thick leather belt at his waist housing the mean curve of the cutlass that had been held to Talon’s throat not long ago.
‘What’s going on?’ Talon asked the girl.
‘A bit of sea sport,’ she replied.
Some of the crew turned angrily when they pushed through but quickly recoiled when they saw the green-eyed girl accompanying Talon.
‘Just in time, Cleo,’ a stocky lad with hoops through his earlobes greeted her. ‘Razor’s ‘bout to take on Kurt.’
Talon froze. Cleo? Was that even a dream he’d had?
‘Is he now? Good for him.’
In the middle of the baying crowd, a rather burly man paced around the blood-stained deck, flexing his monstrous arms back and forth.
His opposing number, a boy only a few years older than Talon, sat on his haunches chewing his lower lip. It hardly looked like a fair fight.
Cleo laughed softly when she caught Talon’s frown. ‘Size isn’t always everything, farmboy.’
In a bare-knuckle fight, it is, Talon disagreed.
‘Are you ready yet, you great lump of lard?’ the boy called. ‘I’m getting bored!’
‘It’s Razor!’ the big man roared.
‘I thought razors were meant to be dead thin, pork chop,’ the boy thumbed his lips thoughtfully.
‘RAZORRRRRR!’ the burly man screamed his name as he charged at the boy. Talon swore he could feel the whole ship tremble.
What happened next surprised everyone.
The boy, Kurt he assumed, stamped his foot forward on the deck, dislodging a plank, which the burly man then proceeded to take a nasty tumble over.
The moment Razor’s shoulder hit the floor, Kurt launched his foot against the man’s jaw with a resounding CRACK! Razor stayed down after that.
The crowd went awfully quiet.
‘You’ve got a loose floorboard there Cap’n,’ Kurt pointed down at the deck.
A slick cackle, like bones rattling in a glass jar, speared through the silence. The Captain slapped the wooden railing of the quarterdeck approvingly, the crowd following his lead with hesitant, at first, applause before quickly finding their feet.
‘You owe me a damn floorboard, boy!’ the Captain shook his fist at Kurt.
‘Sorry cap’n,’ the boy a splayed hand to his head and grinned mischeviously, ‘I’ll get it done cap’n.’
The Captain waved him off with a chuckle then his eyes found Cleo and Talon beside her.
‘Back among the living then, little fish?’ the Captain said.
Talon stepped forward and bored his eyes right into the Captain’s blue. He wasn’t quite sure what compelled his next few words, perhaps a certain green-eyed girl standing behind him. Or maybe he just needed a little taste of blood to keep him going till they reached Clovaine.
‘I wanna fight,’ Talon told the Captain. A few of the crewmen sniggered around him. He ignored them all.
‘Farmboy, you’re still injured,’ Cleo whispered behind him.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he hissed back petulantly.
‘So, the little fish wants to swim with the sharks, aye?’
Not just any shark, Captain.
‘Where’s Little Jimmy?’ the Captain barked at his crew.
Talon shook his head, ‘not a fist-fight.’
‘–I heard what you said, lad,’ the Captain waved a hand. ‘So, you fancy a taste of iron then?’ the man’s blue eyes seemed to sparkle at the prospect.
God, yes, he did.
‘Talon!’ Cleo said warningly.
It felt bad to ignore her.
‘Which of these lazy louts do you fancy the look of?’ the Captain spread his hands over the railing.
‘None of them,’ Talon grinned.
The crewmen scratched their heads at that.
‘None of them?’ the Captain echoed. ‘Who you fighting then?’
‘Ye’,’ Talon pointed at the Captain.
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
The Crew turned to their Captain expectantly.
‘Aye! Do you now, lad?’ the Captain scratched at his ginger-grey beard.
The crew snapped their heads back to Talon.
‘What? Afraid to come down?’ Talon held up his arms in an open challenge.
The crew guffawed and stamped their feet against the deck.
‘If you do be set on it,’ the Captain shrugged nonchalantly. ‘Name your terms.’
‘My terms?’ Talon scrunched up his brow.
‘A forfeit, little fish. You tell me what you what. I tell you what I want.’
Talon bent his head in thought.
What did he want? A little blood would do for now but he hadn’t considered anything more.
The glint of the Captain’s rings under the sunlight caught his eye, a silver one in particular with a fat gem, as green as Cleo’s eyes.
‘How about yer’ ring,’ Talon suggested, ‘the green one.’
‘Hear that lads? The little fish do have an eye for treasure!’ the Captain chuckled, as he made his way down the stairs to his right.
‘Ye’ accept?’ Talon asked him, doing his best not to gulp when the Captain stood before him. The man looked awfully tall compared to his crew and practically shadowed Talon with his sheer height.
‘Aye!’ the Captain’s gold tooth sparkled underneath his raised lips. ‘But what forfeit for you, little fish?’
‘Get ‘im to clean the bog!’ one of the crewmen shouted, earning uproarious laughter.
The Captain held up a hand to quiet them, then pointed at the dislodged floorboard between him and Talon.
‘You’ll fix that, lad,’ he said. The bearded bastard sounded awfully confident.
‘Fine,’ Talon agreed.
The crowd parted as the Captain strode past Talon towards the middle of the ship. He snatched a cutlass from one of the crewmen’s rope belts and tossed it along the floor.
‘Shall we say… till first blood?’
Talon picked up the cutlass, it felt awfully heavier than it looked, and nodded his agreement. He could imagine Cleo shaking her head behind him.
The crew gathered around the combatants, affording them a wide berth, at least as wide as the ship’s narrow deck would allow them.
The Captain held his sword lazily against his pinstriped, flaxen coloured breeches, as they circled each other. Talon sounded like an Ox barrelling through a field compared to the Captain’s light, padded footsteps.
Then suddenly the bearded man was on him swiping his cutlass towards Talon.
His brows rose in surprise when Talon brushed the blow back.
Talon jumped forward, poking his cutlass forward, the Captain just managing to block the direct hit to his stomach.
He darted forward again and the Captain was forced to retreat to the sea.
The man always managed to wriggle his way out however, either with brute force or trickery of foot.
He quickly recovered composure and began to pin Talon back against the railings. His eyes lit up when he noticed the boy had lost his footing and he let the cutlass fall against Talon’s with a fierce two-handed strike that sent shockwaves spasming through his body.
Their blades held against each other at first, then the Captain began to push Talon’s blade back, using his own weight to force the boy to his knees.
‘Give up, little fish, before you do hurt yourself.’
Looking up at that Captain almost made him want to. The blue of his eyes seemed to harbour deep wells that carried the depth of the deepest ocean. What demons did he keep hidden in those murky depths?
As soon as Talon’s right knee hit the deck he took another gamble. He released one of his hands from the cutlass, withdrew the hiding knife from his boot and made an arc across the exposed flesh of the Captain’s chest.
The Captain managed to catch Talon’s wrist just before the blade could do him any harm.
‘So, little fish, you be a cheat, do you?’ his breath was an unpleasant concoction of fish and wine that made Talon want to gag.
Talon grunted under the effort of trying to move the knife closer to its intended target but the Captain’s grip was iron.
‘I like you, lad but I do be afraid you play a game I’ve known for years.’
The Captain pressed his thumb hard into Talon’s wrist, sending shooting pains up the boy’s arm, forcing him to drop the knife. He released Talon then, leaving him to nurse his wrist.
The Captain stayed for a moment as he struggled to stand, giving him an appraising look.
‘You do got some guts, little fish,’ the Captain told him. ‘Mind no one tries to strangle you with them while you do waggle them about.’
With that strange warning, the grey-haired man turned on his bootheels.
Growling through gritted teeth, Talon pushed himself onto one leg but couldn’t quite get up the other.
‘Where ye’… where ye’ going?’ Talon shouted at the Captain’s back.
‘Fight do be over, little fish,’ the Captain replied simply. ‘I want that floorboard fixed tomorrow.’
‘Ye’ said till first blood!’
‘Aye, lad! And your stitches do be broken.’
Talon didn’t want to look down. Tentatively, he touched a palm to his bandages. They felt wet.
Talon made an attempt to lift his second leg, lost his balance, and slipped to the deck, thankfully not on his wounded, and now profusely bleeding, side.
‘Wait…’ he pleaded with the shadows closing in on all sides. Talon held them at bay for only a moment before succumbing to their cold embrace.