The screams of his wounded men had finally begun to subside, but not enough to afford Declan McCallagh any rest. Not that he could have slept now, regardless. It had been the third attack in as many weeks, and his already battered crew had barely managed to hang on long enough to outrun their attackers.
It could have been worse. They’d avoided being boarded, raided, and forced into service in another crew—not that he, as captain, would have been granted such an offer.
Yet they’d far from succeeded in this latest battle. Nine had been lost at the onset. Another twenty-four wounded, half of those severely enough he doubted they’d live to see the next port.
They’d been caught off guard, the sails of the other ship having been spotted in the dawn’s light mere seconds before the first cannon shot had been heard and felt. It had narrowly missed their bow, hitting the teal waters of the Aisling Sea instead. A warning shot perhaps, but the Winged Serpent and its captain, Tiernen, were not known for being merciful. Not even to fellow pirates.
While other captains had formed alliances—albeit fickle and shaky ones at best—within the pirate guild, no such accords could ever be made with the pirate lords who posed a constant threat to the smaller ships, like Declan’s.
And Captain Tiernen’s barbarism was that of nightmares. Crews cut down. Captains and officers brutally tortured and strung up on the rocky coastlines as a warning for all passing ships. Tiernen’s signature, as it were.
Still, the Serpent’s gunners had missed. Whether on purpose or by accident, Declan was unsure. But it had granted his men enough time to rally and get the guns into position to fight back.
It had been for naught though.
The next attack from the Serpent had brought bundle shot ripping across the deck and tearing into his crew as they scrambled to get the ship into a better position to return fire. But they were dangerously low on munitions after such hard weeks at sea.
Though they’d managed to overtake a handful of merchant ships making their way south to Larcsporough, those ships had not surrendered outright, requiring the use of more powder and rounds than Declan had hoped or planned for. And none of those raids had yielded much of value. The attacks from fellow pirates had taken even more of their resources, and by the time the Winged Serpent had hit them upon rounding the north side of Helles Island, they’d had no chance of making much of a stand.
Declan had been forced to make the call to run instead of fight.
Now, standing in his quarters, with the strong afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows at his back, he pushed against the worn desk and stepped back from the map, rubbing a hand across his stubbled chin.
The last three weeks seemed to have aged him more than the entire twelve years he’d spent sailing these waters. He might have been the youngest captain on this sea, but the recent attacks from the lords had him feeling twice his age.
He eyed the trio of men standing opposite him. The same weariness he bore was mirrored in their stances, as if the fatigue hung like a dead weight upon their bones. It had been growing heavier during these long weeks at sea—weeks that had felt more like months.
All three studied the map in silence as they considered every possible destination, but Declan already knew where he needed to take the Siren’s Song. And it was the last place he wanted to go.
“We could attempt to make it to Haviern, perhaps,” his quartermaster, Tommy Murphy, said, breaking the tense silence. Friends since their first stints as cabin boys at the age of ten, he and Declan had grown up on the seas together, learned each other’s secrets. And tells. Seeing Tommy now gnawing on the inside of his lip, Declan knew he hadn’t offered the suggestion lightly and had wanted to recommend a different destination.
Tommy pulled his cap off and scratched the back of his head as he continued to stare at the map.
The ship’s helmsman, Gavin Flynn, spoke up without raising his gaze. “Even with favorable winds—and no more attacks—we’d lose half the injured by the time we arrived. We can’t risk it.”
Tommy looked around the room, as if checking to see if any of the crew could hear him. “We’ll have to replace the injured regardless.”
Declan’s stomach knotted. Another captain, one like Tiernen perhaps, might have been willing to let the injured crew die at sea to appeal to his own whims. But Declan couldn’t.
Gavin’s chin snapped up, shock pooling in his eyes, but it was their bo’sun, Mikkel Harlan, who spoke for him, his Turvalan accent strong with his fatigue. “As true as that may be, Tommy, you know the captain wouldn’t hear of it. And even without the injured, the crew is far too exhausted. I doubt they’d vote in favor of that destination.”
“You know where they want to go,” Gavin said, shooting a glance at Mikkel and Tommy before all three lifted their eyes to Declan, their bodies still as if he were a stalking predator instead of their captain.
There was no fear in their eyes though. While the rest of the crew might not know the reasoning behind Declan’s orders, these men—the men he’d assembled for their grit and their drive and their loyalty—understood. Despite their youth, each of them had known heartache and loss, and they’d spent the last hour trying to find a way to spare him from facing his own.
Only out of sheer desperation would they suggest this destination.
Their unspoken words hung in the cabin’s stale air, and Declan’s gut twisted as he repeated the port’s name in his mind. It would be best for his men, and after all the years of asking them to sacrifice—to risk life and limb for glory and riches—how could he refuse to do the same for them?
Yet his body protested physically at the thought of returning, of walking those cobbled streets once again, of having the scent of ancient wood and brine hit his nose. His jaw tightened as that familiar weight pressed against his chest, his throat tightening until he could barely breathe or swallow. He forced his face to remain calm, however, not wanting his men—even the three closest to him—to know just how greatly he struggled.
He felt their stares as he looked back down at the map for the millionth time, as if some ancient magic might have altered the position of the lands scattered throughout the Aisling Sea. These men would follow him wherever he dictated. He could insist they seek solace elsewhere, let his injured die on the crossing to Haviern or Foxhaven, all so he could avoid returning to those rocky black shores.
A distant scream pierced the air, pulling his gaze back up to his men, who winced at the sound. Another crew member was likely losing a limb to their overworked and exhausted carpenter-turned-surgeon. It pushed him to make a decision.
He pulled the salt-coated air deep into his chest and uttered the last words he’d ever planned to say.
“We make for Port Morshan.”