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Hoofprints in the sand

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The first thing Max saw after coming to was the inside of a burlap sack.

In the movies he had seen, the poor victim always had time to scream. For him, the experience was the loss of light, then the tightening of a rope right around his neck. He flailed, his right hand coming into contact with someone's jaw, and pain spread into his knuckles almost immediately.

People screamed around him. Women, men and children. Explosions went off, the crackling of fire soon growing into a roar. And laughter. Some sick maniac was laughing in the middle of it all.

What's going on? Who are these people? What are they going to do wi-

A fist dug into his abdomen.

The hit drove him to his knees. The very first time in his life that someone had actually punched him. He would have rather kept up his good record. The point was, he was absolutely not prepared for it. It made him gasp, and the bag seemed to shrink around his face; the rope, to dig into his skin. The inhale, too short, sent him into full blown panic.

“Plea… please…” he wheezed through the ropes, barely above a whisper.

He shouldn't have. He was feeling light-headed. Not enough air. Not enough light. He couldn't see. He couldn't breath. People were laughing. Screaming. Dying.

Help me.

All the noise slowly faded out. His eyelids grew heavy. At some point, his legs gave out under him. And he knew no more.

 

 

--



When he awoke, he was still in the dark. Rough material clung to his kin, puffing only whenever he exhaled, then rushed back to meet his lips whenever he inhaled. The ground under him seemed flat, too flat to be natural. Then, it seemed to rise and lower, following a rhythm. Where was he?

What had happened to him? Who had taken him?

“This one's coming to,” some croaking voice said.

Max didn't have time to panic. Rough hands pulled him up, only for another to shove down on his head until he knelt.

Only then did the rope around his neck come apart. In a blur of fabric, the sack flew off his head, scraping his face and pulling his hair. It finally shed some light on his situation.

He almost wished it hadn't.

Surrounding him was the dirtiest, foulest-smelling, vicious-looking bunch of men he had ever seen. Most of them were hideous, covered in grim like they hadn't seen a bath or a toothbrush in years. In their hands or at their hips rested actual swords, and none of them looked like they would lose a wink of sleep if they skewered him. The tallest of them, all muscles and scars, towered over him, his black bandana shadowing his eyes.

“Don't move.”

Max stared at the blade pointed straight at his face and had only one thought.

I'm having a nightmare.

It was the only logical explanation. He'd been home just an hour before. Home! If he could call a small student dorm room his home. For the last two years, he had. And there was no possible way for him to have been wondering around the streets in the middle of some goddamned terrorist attack! Had he been hit on the head before? Had he gotten some short-term memory loss or something?

He couldn't possibly have been anywhere near pirates before today. Hell, he was living inland, far away from the nearest river. The hell was going on?!

The man closest to him grinned viciously, and Max had to bite down on a whimper of fear. Where the hell had those people come from? Why had they kidnapped him? He had practically no value as a hostage, he was a student, born of middle-class parents with three older brothers and sisters. What could they hope to accomplish with someone like that?

He must have been trembling too much or something. Pain erupted at the back of his head. Not enough to make him lose consciousness, but it was like the night sky had decided to drop half its stars right in front of his face.

His vision swam. His glasses had flown lose amongst the crowd, and he was certain he heard a crunching noise. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. What next?

I just asked that. In this situation, surrounded by bloodthirsty bastards, I just asked that. Brilliant.

Boots stopped in front of him. Richly decorated boots, made of good leather, lined with some metallic thread linked at the heels to cowboy spurs. Max's gaze followed the threads up to the ankles, to a pair of white pants, to a vibrant green vest worn over a frilly blouse. All the way up.

Right till he saw the man's face.

All his life, he had been taught not to judge a book by its cover. Appearances were only ever a facet of a thing, not its entirety. And yet, here and now, his entire being screamed that, just this once, he should make an exception. It wasn't quite the man's chin, triangular as it was, nor the sharp nose. Max himself had a slightly stronger nose than average, like most of his family on his mother's side. He'd even let the psychedelic-looking lime green hair go. Fashion choices and all.

It was the man's eyes that convinced him.

Those eyes glided over the men forced to kneel. They didn't see anyone. Just livestock.

“Listen up, maggots.”

The man had an oddly light voice. An alto. Each word had been almost cheerful, and that alone had made cold sweat run down Max's spine. He could already tell where this was going.

“I am Captain Beaudrille, owner of this vessel.”

One poor nervous wreck of a man made the mistake of moaning in fear. Eyes of a sickeningly bright green turned on him, and if the prisoner had been nervous before, he looked frankly on the verge of either emptying his bladder or throwing up.

Max counted himself lucky he was too numb to have done either.

“From now on, you will do everything I say.” Captain Beaudrille pushed the tip of his rapier against the man's Adam's apple. “Breath only when I saw. Sleep when I say. Move when I say. Talk when I say.”

“P-p-please…”

You idiot!

Beaudrille nonchalantly pushed the sword through the man's throat. Blood splattered over his face, to which he did not flinch in the slightest.

“I didn't say.”

Right then, Max thanked his lucky star he was on his knees, because otherwise he would have fallen on his ass and brought the madman's attention on himself. Madmen, the lot of them. And he didn't have a clue what to do.

Listen. Do whatever the fuck that Beaudrille asshole wants you to do. Do everything. Anything.

He would have liked to think he had some immense moral strength here. That he would never bow down to evil or some other fancy shit like that. One for the philosophers and the history books.

If I don't, I'll die.

Yeah, right. He was pretty sure few of those old bearded guys had written down their essays while surrounded by killers. It gave some fucking perspective.

The jingling of spurs started again, growing progressively stronger as Beaudrille walked up the line of shaking men. He, of course, stopped right in front of Max.

“Look at you.” The rapier poked his shirt. Pushed the flesh underneath until it became something like a sting. “Must have had a comfortable life before, huh? A real piggy, I bet.”

Max flinched, but said nothing. His lungs felt empty.

“Huh.” Beaudrille frowned at Max's attire, or, more specifically his jeans. “Never seen that material before.”

Never seen jeans before? What kind of backwater… nope, not gonna ask the actual kidnapping terrorist that dressed like a medieval period piece and dyed his hair neon green.

“You wouldn't happen to be rich, would you?”

“N-no,” – His voice cracked. – “sir, captain,” he tacked on at the end.

Beaudrille smirked. “Pity. But at least, you look smarter than that moron over there.”

He pointed one gloved-thumb to the corpse lying in a pool of its own blood, and the men laughed and wolf-whistled. Beaudrille himself only kept a mildly pleasant smile on his face.

Relief came crashing over Max when the captain pulled away from him and walked down the line of prisoners. He didn't single anyone else amongst the group, apparently satisfied with his little demonstration.

“Men.” He turned to the motley crew. “We're leaving port! To another successful raid of the Green Sword pirates!”

Cheers filled the air. Explosion followed as a handful shot their guns – weird old things – into the air, looking utterly proud of themselves. That was about the moment Max caught sight of the fire in the distance. Whatever town that was would soon be no more than a pile of ashes.

“Gibson,” Beaudrille said, and the bandana man from before stepped forward, “put them to good use.”

Gibson shot them all a sinister grin.

 

 

--



The first few hours at sea were the most intense of his life. No storm came to capsize their vessel, no enemy jumped on board, in fact, Max would bet his life it was the calmest start to a journey most of that crew had seen. No, what made it intense was the pressure on the back of their heads. At any given moment, they could all feel the gaze of Captain Beaudrille or his first mate drilling into their skin. Every gesture was scrutinized.

Take care of the chickens and the cow – not what I would have expected to see on a pirate ship –, don't touch the rum, don't touch the food or the water, in fact, touch nothing that could be better served in a more valuable crewmember's stomach. Above all, do not touch the medicine cabinet. Forget it even exists.

Slave every second that you're awake, because that is one more second alive.

If I don't, I will die.


He'd made it his mantra. Whenever he threatened to go inside his head, he repeated that to himself until the urge passed.

And most of all, he was careful.

At the end of those first two hours of touring the ship, they were told to wash the deck of the blood. Wouldn't want someone to slip at the wrong moment, after all. Five minutes in, a man no older than Max knocked over his bucket of water.

It spilled over the deck, and captain Beaudrille's boots.

Whatever words of apologies the poor man had intended to say, they were drowned out by a thunderous bang.

“Do get back to work, maggots. I believe your workload just increased, and I want this boat spotless by sundown.”

The remaining cabin boys started swiping with the strength of ten men.

And though he barely saw the others' faces, Max knew they all had had the same thought. I'm going to die here!