Both ships had made fast progress while Jude was below deck. When he raised himself up the height of the shroud, Jude sucked in a sharp breath at the clear sight of uniformed men lined up along the bannisters of the British deck. They were close enough that if the winds weren’t whipping so loudly in his ears, he was sure he’d be able to hear their shouts from across the sea.
The pirates below him had begun rushing to arms. A cannon fired from below him and Jude clutched the ropes to stop himself from slipping to a quick death when it jostled the mast he hung from. From so high up, Jude could only hear the heavy splash as the shot hit the water, then several bursts of gunpowder as grapples were shot from the navy’s cannons. Iron spikes tore into their hull until the metal teeth held firmly enough for the navy to pull them taught, closing the watery space between them.
Jude took a deep breath to steady himself and continued upwards. He was yet to find the captain.
He aimed for the safety of the sails, to stay hidden beneath the great billowing folds. With his cutlass tucked safely through a loop at his waist and his eyes cast down to watch his footing, he shuffled across the latticed ropes as quickly as he could muster. Past his feet, Jude watched pirates and navy officers alike as they swung from ropes to land on each others’ decks, swords already brandished with no intentions of peaceful negotiations in sight.
He was transfixed on the uniformed men that slowly began to swarm their deck when he reached for a new square of rope, but his attention was quickly brought back to his handhold at the sound of splitting fibres. He had no time to look around and see the grapple that had stuck into the mast above him, slicing through a hefty chunk of rope where it landed, and simply grasped at the closest line of rope he could reach to save himself from falling.
With the shroud beginning to unravel from under his weight, Jude had no choice but to give all his faith to the new strand of rope. The coil shifted and slid down the mast as he dug his heels around it, and before he knew it, the line was quickly unwinding and he was swinging gracelessly towards the British vessel.
Jude made a mental note to curse the pirate who’d shirked their rigging duties if he managed to get out of this alive.
The navy ship was approaching fast, and Jude had to kick his legs up to swing over the bannister and stop from being splattered against the side of their hull. As soon as he was over the deck, his hands released the rope and he tumbled across the enemy helm. His crash landing had him seeing stars, but he had enough adrenaline coursing through him to leap straight up to his feet with his cutlass in his hand.
As soon as he had risen, Jude jumped back against the mast and took in the swath of navy officers that surrounded him, swords already drawn in welcome. He was outnumbered; this wouldn’t be easy, maybe not even possible, but Jude gripped his cutlass tightly and held it at the ready.
Two of the officers ran at him in unison. With little training and no experience, Jude relied on instinct and pure panic to side step away from one of them and parry the other’s blade against his own. The clash of colliding metal rang loudly through his ears, the sound of their scraping much harsher than he was prepared for. It stunned him so that he almost fumbled his next parry, but he just managed to jump back in time to swing his blade at a third approaching officer.
Jude rushed further back, using the mast to keep distance between himself and his foes. There was now only one within swiping distance, and the man held his sword low and steady as he slowly stepped closer. The sudden silence made everything feel so still, and when Jude looked his enemy up and down, he saw opportunity. Grasping his sword tightly, he leapt forward and threw the full weight of his weapon across the unguarded torso of his enemy.
Jude braced himself for the smell of blood, the sound of torn fabric— but he did not prepare himself for the familiar clang of a parried blade as the officer blocked his attack, nor for the way he fumbled to steady his weight after such a confident swing. It all happened within a second— his lunge, the shrieking of the officer’s sword colliding with his own, then the shift of weight as his foe slid his blade away from the parry and sliced it across Jude’s stomach in one fell swoop.
Jude groaned as he stumbled forward, each step sending a flare of hot pain through his abdomen. He wanted nothing more than to curl up and wrap his arms around himself, to put pressure on the cut and breathe deep until the pain subsided, but he forced himself to spin around to face his attacker and throw his sword back up to block any follow-up attacks.
If the mizzenmast hadn’t been there, Jude was sure he would have been pierced through the shoulderblades already. The sturdy mast allowed him to side step away from impending danger, but the six surrounding naval officers were quickly noticing the pattern of movement that Jude hadn’t even realised of himself. He could block a swing if he was lucky, and he could dodge a lunge if he was paying attention at the right moment, but the pain in his stomach burned brighter with every step and he felt his movements becoming sluggish.
With newfound determination to cause a dent in the navy’s crew even if it killed him, Jude swung his blade more rigorously towards the closest officer and kept his eyes narrowed for any unguarded limb he could take advantage of. He would kick, claw, and bite if he had to, but his vision flashed white before he ever had the chance. He groaned as he hit the deck, pain surging from both his stomach and where his shoulder collided with the hardwood.
Jude tensed his grip as tightly around his sword, trying to hold it up in defence as one of the officers slowly approached him. He gripped as hard as he could, but the handle slipped from his loose fingers and clanged against the floor beside him. The officer took another purposeful step forward, pinning Jude’s blade underneath his boot.
The young pirate grimaced as he wrapped his emptied hands around his middle, clutching his abdomen in a desperate attempt for the pain to stop. It ran sharp and hot across his gut, but it wasn’t the worst pain he’d ever experienced— as he stared down the edge of the blade that pointed at his throat, he couldn’t understand why his body wasn’t moving the way he wanted it to. It was only when he tightened his grip around himself, when his forearms slid across his tunic and the fabric squelched like it was soaked through, he realised his little cut was gushing with blood.
Jude lifted his eyes from the point of the sword to the face of the man who held it. He searched his attacker’s face for some sign of hope, but his gaze was stern and his hand was steady. There would be no mercy here.
He supposed he should pray, but Jude could not recall any passages through the hammering of his heartbeat in his ears. It beat so rapidly that he momentarily wondered if it would give out before the navy had a chance to slit his throat, and it echoed so loudly that he nearly mistook a nearby gunshot as one of its thumping beats.
Jude braced himself at the feeling of warm sea spray smattering across his cheeks.
He blinked hard to try and bring his eyes back into focus, but it was the familiar clang of a sword hitting the deck that properly awoke him. He turned his head to find the officer’s weapon laying clean on the ground beside him, and not a moment later, its owner collapsed gracelessly on top of it. Jude gasped through his gritted teeth at the sight of the man’s face and the great hole that bore through it. The blood pooling from his lifeless head reeked of gunpowder and burning entrails, turning Jude’s head away in search of fresh air.
The scene above him had transformed; the officers who had been slowly encircling him like vultures were now scrambling to and fro, swinging and lunging their swords in hapless attempts to avoid the calm fury of a black and gold blur. Jude’s vision faded in and out of clarity as he watched a billowing mauve coat flow and dance around the deck, the tattered fabric fluttering alongside purposeful slashes of a narrow blade.
Jude watched helplessly as an officer stormed his captain from behind, then as Kit spun around at the last moment to produce another pistol and fire a shot right between the man’s eyes. He turned back before the man hit the ground, readying his sword to parry a lacklustre swing from another officer. Kit effortlessly lifted his blade and drove it down into a man’s throat, barely sparing him a glance when he unsheathed it from his body to let him drop lifelessly onto his knees.
Most of the captain’s movements were too fast and fluid for Jude to keep up with. His vision continued shifting in and out of focus as he strained to watch the flurry of slashes and stabs across the deck, but once it became clear that he would not be dying at the hands of the British that day, his adrenaline began to drain and his body begged for rest.
Everything went black, only for a moment. Jude came to when he felt a cold hand against his jaw, fingers pinching his chin to tilt his head upright. The world was quiet and a dark fog creeped around the edges of his vision, but Kit’s grey eyes were clear and bright where they hovered in front of his face.
How had he never noticed them before?
Jude tried to lift a hand, overcome with the urge to reach out to the pools of murky silver that narrowed in front of him— but his arm trembled when he raised it, and his abdomen tightened with pain when the pressure relieved from his wound.
He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed out a groan, quickly clamping his arm back down.
“Hold fast,” uttered the captain’s gruff voice. He was quiet, but close; Jude could feel his breath tickle against his cheeks, then the weight of his hands settling firmly over his own.
Eyes still shut and brows furrowed in pain, Jude nodded. The captain’s hands remained on him, keeping a steady pressure even as his strength faded and his body threatened to sink back into unconsciousness.
The last thing he remembered was that tight grip around his wrists; cold fingers warmed by the unwavering contact.
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