A dock side pub has a certain quality to it. A quality of patron and a quality of character, neither ranking all that high on any scale of civilisation. All over the world in every port, the trappings may change but the soul remains the same. Two constants of a dock side pub are drunken sailors and stories, drunken sailors need stories like a fish needs water.
Such were the thoughts of The Man in Black as he entered through the door of much repair. Other consistencies must include the stench of brine mixed with the reek of unwashed bodies and sour ale. Lanterns guttered as the draft from the street found its way in through the hundreds of cracks and crevices. He was here for a story that only one man in all the ports told, whether that was through bravery or stupidity remained to be seen. Old Jasper told the finest stories, and he only told them in The Mast, if a tale were to be found then this was the place. The Man in Black was to make sure Old Jasper was telling the right stories. The taproom was quiet, the stars outside made not a whisper, they too listened to the tales the old sailor spun but the stars were not the only audience. The long table was crowded with mugs, each within easy reach of their owners. Jasper told stories every night but this story he told rarely. The Man in Black found a corner he deemed least filthy and settled back into the shadows to listen. The man’s voice had a quality like old leather he thought, tough but worn and comfortable.
“You ain’t never talked so gentle about a woman lads, as I’ll talk about this one. Not even your sweet mama when you still at her tit.” The sailors nodded quietly, they knew what was coming. This is one of the stories Jasper only told once or twice a year, if that. Tonight would be a treat, tonight Jasper would tell them the tale of the Devil’s favourite. “Red Leg Ronnie,” he said his voice solemn. A few of the sailors made warding signs with their hands. You can always trust a sailor to be superstitious. Should Veronica Delacroix hear herself referred to as such she would grace every man here with the Devil’s Kiss and leave him in the locker. The Man in Black would have smiled at the thought if he hadn’t seen her do it in Tortuga. “The one who holds sway over the Devil’s Shroud, and you know what it means should those red sails ever cross your horizon,” Jasper paused, the old man knew how to play his audience. They were carmine sails The Man in Black corrected silently. She hadn’t paid a king’s ransom in Venice to have them forgotten as merely red. One of the sailors took a long swig of his ale
“That one there is one of the Devil’s own sailing mortal seas,” he grumbled. Now that she would agree with. Jasper nodded sagely, interruptions were to be used not ignored, this man was a seasoned storyteller.
“That is the crux of the tale lad. How she came to be, how she called and how He answered,” the old man took a sip of ale, letting that sink in. The Man in Black found himself sitting forward despite himself. This was a tale he hadn’t heard.
When she woke the sky woke with her, from the limbo grey of predawn it rolled through the rich reds and oranges before settling on blue. Blue was a good choice for it matched the dress she was to wear that day, the expensive dress that her mother and father had acquired for her betrothal. Now a fishing village is not the thing that stories are made of, you know this, you’ve seen hundreds of the damned things. Clinging to the estuaries and rivers ends like barnacles on a hull. They would set the cages deep and cast their nets wide. The day to day of the hovel doesn’t matter, that day was different. If she feels inclined to tell it herself, she would tell you she remembers nothing of the raid, not the pain or fear. If she were inclined to tell you.
Pirates would raid the coast more in those days, the fleet didn’t bother too much if some small fishing communities were put to the torch so long as the ports remained safe, dark times. We’ve all seen the bones of them, walked them and even rooted about to see if we couldn’t find something the pirates left or overlooked. It was just as that, burned and hollow. So she sat in the mud and the grime, she sat in the black and the blood in her pretty blue dress. She doesn’t know why she is there or why she is alive. A girl sees that kind of butchery, well it does things to the mind. Makes a body do things they wouldn’t normally do. I say this not in defence of what she did, but so you understand how it came about. She looked skyward, the sky was untouched unlike her dress, and she called. She called His name in anger and she called it in sorrow. She called in despair and vengeance. She demanded that the Morningstar answer. Yes, it was He whom she called, not the almighty in plea of understanding or compassion but the Devil hisself.
Now it was done with a broken mind you understand,and usually such calls fall by the wayside but it happens the Devil was walking underneath a mortal sky that day. The Devil is always close to such acts. A man he seems to her, just a man in plain clothing and of simple features. Her summons had intrigued him and so he had come. He saw her there, not the girl in the blue dress and the mud, nor the girl in the black and the blood. He saw what she could become. Now the Devil, as you’re knowing, needs no petting of his ego but he looks kindly on his own evil for the fortune of this meeting, there is something different here. He kneels down before her, she’s a picture of broken and he breathes it in, savours it. The girl knows who it is though, see Old Nick was wearing the flesh of a man and a god fearing girl like her has only been given tales of demons and such but she had called him and just as he saw her she could see past the puppet he wore. They don’t greet each other, in those first few moments they were alike as old friends. She cries at first, the choking sobs we only find in our deepest sorrow. She doesn’t ask the whys or question the way of the world, she just cries. She screams with all the venom possible to spill from a human mouth, curses and oaths the likes of which Old Nick has only ever heard the Almighty aim his way. Until at last again she simply wept quietly.
The Devil is knowing a thing or two about patience let me tell you. Old Nick sat and he said nothing, didn’t move, just listened. The Devil is a listener see, the things you learn about a body if you just stow your yammer and listen. So he sits and he waits, wallowing in all the emotions rolling off her until at last she ebbs and is still in the black and the blood. He reaches out with a man’s hand, touches her shoulder, such a tender touch but with the promise of strength. The poor lass falls right into him with everything that ain’t broken, which isn’t much. The Devil just holds her see, does nothing more. A word doesn’t cross his forked tongue. He just holds this broken thing in his arms, holds her as if he means it. She clutches at him as the sobs well up again and as they sit entwined in the mud he begins to speak. First it’s low, noise, nothing more than a whisper you would use to calm a spooked animal. He strokes her hair with one hand while he breaths soothing sounds. The Devil is patient, he doesn’t rush his deals. There’s strength in his embrace, she no longer feels like she’s about to fall apart. She mutters something into his chest.
“I believe you,” he answers, for Old Nick hears all the curses of man no matter how softly they are spoken.
“I will kill them all,” she repeats. He feels the anger welling up, it’s like a fire inside her.
“It is not your resolve I doubt but the ability behind it,” he says with a sad smile. The Devil would talk a fox out of its tail lads, never forget that.
“I would,” she assures, the hatred inside her was raging like an inferno, the conflagration reaching her eyes. Old Nick sees those pale eyes and in them something he has only ever seen twice in his unholy life. Only Red Leg Ronnie could make the Devil think twice.
“I can give you what you want.” He wipes a dark smudge from her cheek, the wind has gone still. She clutches at him with both hands as if he were planking in a wreck. He was her only lifeline. That need is the hook, the crutch with which he helps them stand. “There is a price,” he explains, knowing she has already agreed to it, not needing to know the cost. Such things must be said however, even the Devil has rules he must live by and he cannot break them. “One broken soul,” he puts a hand on her heart a touch like cool water “later, and everyone you send on its way in between. Each to be greeted and attended by the Devil himself. This is the cost of your vengeance. Your justice.” She was nodding, not even listening, her entire being in agreement. His hand traces her face, and he leans in close. The Devil seals his deals with a kiss. He smells of the sea to her, and one last time he whispers soothing sounds in her ear.
She slept, for how long she was unsure but the stars looked down on her as she woke. Waking alone in a dead village is no way to wake, but Ronnie has made a covenant with the Morningstar, this she remembered with certainty. Down by the estuary was a small boat with a man. The poor girl doesn’t question it, a bargain has been struck. She was sure this one was just a man, a young one at that with a neatly trimmed beard. He said nothing, made no comment upon her ragged appearance but offered his hand and helped her into the boat. He pushed off from the shingled beach and quickly took up the oars. The wind returned as they glided easily across the water but the fire inside her kept her warm, in fact the fire inside her was slowly suffocating every need other than vengeance. The silhouette of a frigate riding at anchor soon eclipsed the moon, three masts and fully rigged. The small row boat sidled up against the hull of the red sailed ship, only then did the man speak.
“This is the Devil’s Shroud. She will see you safe and well in your search. We’ve a full complement aboard, experienced and loyal.”
“To the Devil?” she challenged
“To you, we sail at your command Captain.”
Old Jasper let the silence back in. The Man in Black eased back into the shadows, aware of how eagerly he was hanging upon Jasper’s words. The sailors remained quiet, such a riotous crowd manipulated so easily with words. A few took deep draughts of their ale while others made quite signs of warding. Jasper stood without comment and returned to the bar. The Man in Black thought it a fine tale, one that obviously had the desired effect. Fear was a valuable tool, worth more than gold. He was troubled however, The Man in Black had seen the blue dress covered in the black and the blood.