Young Roy blew on his fingers in a poor attempt to stop them freezing. His breath billowed like white smoke, curling around his shaking digits. It mirrored the sweeping icy winds that howled about his poor shelter of a snow-covered gorse bush. He moved his arms to find comfort, but instead they scratched and bled against the spiky underbrush.
Six hours ago – or so he reckoned – he had been about to tuck into tender Scottish beef along with the rest of the Blackthorne farmstead. His father and cousins had raided north the week before, crossing the invisible border atop the heather-clad moors, through twisting winter meadowland, and across frozen mountain streams. Five heads of cattle they had taken from the Scottish Rutherfords, along with several sacks of raw wool.
There had been other foods for the Christmas feast: market sausages baked with late-picked apples, and roast turnips hooked from the solid ground by his own hands.
He looked at his shaking fingers again, raising them tentatively to the tears frozen to his face. He could still hear the screams of the burning dead… his father… his cousins… the few tenants…
All were dead, murdered by the Craws. Timbers had been hammered against the door to prevent their escape, and oil had been poured through the small windows…
He was the last of the Blackthornes.
They had all been on the spiced ale, filling their bellies with the strong drink as the meat leaked its juices into the hot yellow flames.
“How long now?” Roy had asked, his stomach grumbling.
His cousin Jesamiah turned the spit with a laugh, “Done when it’s done!”
Roy was about to say that looked perfectly good as it was until his father called him from the other side of the bastle house. “Boy! Come here!”
The fortified farm – or bastle – had belonged to the Blackthornes for generations. The hall was always a hive of activity, with his father acting as some minor chieftain.
“Boy – fetch more ale from the stores! Your mother said she’d do it, but she’s been gone half an age! See what’s holding the daft besom up will you?”
Roy grunted. There was snow outside, and he was nicely warm by the roasting beef.
His father laughed, waving his empty pot. “And be quick about it! Man could die of thirst!”
“Aye!” His uncle roared in agreement, “Die of thirst!”
Snatching his father’s old coat, he descended the stone steps to the stout oak door – the only way in and out of the bastle.
He looked up at the white feathery breeze. The snow had slowed its descent onto the frozen courtyard – usually a morass of black peat and pig swill, but now as solid as the blocks of sandstone that made up the Blackthorne residence. He stepped upon the crisp snow, relishing the squeaky crunch underfoot.
He was halfway to the outer stores when he noticed the jumble of footprints to the large barn. As far as he knew, only his mother was meant to be out of the main hall…
Did they have visitors?
With a frown he crept closer to the outbuildings. He had always been light on his feet, and he slunk through the dark shadows. His ears picked up the briefest of sounds: hushed voices. One of them was his stern mother, he heard her pleading with someone. What was going on?
He moved through the shadows to the side door that gave easy access to the animals’ winter fodder.
“You must do it quickly!” His mother hissed.
“Wisht lass, ye’ll spoil everything!” A man answered. Roy didn’t recognise the voice – but it had a Scottish twang, not too dissimilar from his mother’s own.
He moved atop the hay to listen further, thoroughly confused by what was happening.
“Lord Craw, I have been wronged long enough have I not?” His mother asked.
“Aye my niece, that ye have, but what of ye bairn? Does he not feast in tha’ hall with the rest of them?”
His mother paused for a moment. “A fresh start you promised me. All Blackthornes are to die tonight.”
At his mother’s dark words he felt a chilling stab of fear through his spine. Surely this was some sort of misunderstanding? Surely his mother had not just uttered such a thing? But the Craws… Roy knew of the Craws. His grandfather and great grandfather had reived their lands for decades.
“Ye’re as hard as steel lass… as hard as ye grandmother ever was.” Lord Craw clicked his tongue. “Very well. We’ll make it happen.” He snapped some commands in the darkness, and amidst the flashes of flint and tinder to lanterns, Roy finally saw those inside the barn.
Some twelve men stood with Lord Craw and his mother. They were dressed in thick coats, heavy fur boots, and many pistols and blades about their persons. They were dressed for murder.
He knew he should move, he knew he should warn his father and the others, but he was as frozen as the clods of mud in the courtyard. He couldn’t even shout for help.
His heart beat faster as he turned to watch the illuminated men leaving the barn. Some of them had barrels they rolled along the snow. He could see his mother standing at the larger door, leaning against the timber frame.
The dull thuds of hammering came next. He shuffled atop his place on the hay. He couldn’t quite make out what was happening. But he could hear the shouts of confusion from inside the bastle.
Would his family burst from the hall with swords drawn? Would they fight in the snow? Would he see their crimson blood against the stark white snow?
After a few minutes of thudding, there were no sounds of gunfire, no clashing of blades, only the shouts and curses of protest. And then something else entirely.
Light flashed from around the corners, reflecting off ice, and a rush of hot air hit his face.
The shouts turned to screams and the roar of curling flames.
For a while none of those sat around the crackling fire said anything. Roy hefted his wooden leg to scratch at an invisible itch, then added slices of yam to the bubbling fish fat in the griddle.
“Fucking hell matey…” Jacob breathed. He’d rarely heard the older buccaneer speak of his childhood, and now he realised why.
Bart lowered the bottle of rum half way to his lips. “You did not lie when you said it was a grim tale my friend.”
“Ah well…” Roy spat into the flames, “all in the past now ain’t it?”
“So you lost your father on Christmas? That is a sad thing indeed.”
“No – I lost my father and mother on Christmas. But I ask for no sympathy.” He turned sharply to both of them, as if daring them to console him.
“Of course,” Jacob dipped his head with a soft nod. “Did you ever find out why she did it?”
They both watched as Roy broke the fish into flakes, mixing it with the green plantain. “Aye,” he said after a while, “truth be told, I did find out. I sought her out many years later. I’d already served in the King’s navy twice by then, and been buccaneering a’tween times also. I was no longer a running child. I was a battle-hardened man, and I went to confront the old witch. I went looking for justice.”
“Did you find any?” Bart asked, wiping his lips after a generous glug from the bottle.
“Sort of,” Roy shrugged. “She told me how as a child my grandfather had taken her from the Craws. Our families had an old feud going back as far as anyone could remember. Even though she married my father, even though she bore a Blackthorne child, in her heart she was always a Craw. She said every time she saw my face she was reminded of the crimes against her. I think she regretted it… all of it…” He paused, his lower lip shaking slightly, “She said sorry, called me her bonny laddie – as if that made it all fine.”
“Do you hear from her still?” Jacob asked.
“No,” Roy shook his head firmly, “she had the bloody flux when I confronted her – looked like a sack of old bones. Perhaps that’s why she apologised. She knew death was about to take her… and it did shortly after.”
Jacob stared into the flames as Roy carried on cooking. “Well… that was hardly festive.” He forced a wide grin to his face, “Don’t we have anything a bit happier for the evening?”
“That’s all I’ve got,” Roy said with a frown.
“I have one,” Bart said slowly, “a story about love.”
“You? And love?” Jacob’s grin was genuine this time, “Oh this I have to hear matey… We could do with a laugh after Mister Miserable’s tale of woe.”
Thanks for reading the second part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it!
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If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NEST, GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...