I had the pleasure of running into Tom, first mate on the pirate ship Baal’s Heart last time I was down south. When I asked him if he wanted to answer a few questions, he smiled this incredibly cheeky grin and winked, replying that if there was a beer in it for him, he’d be “bloody game” to talk with me. Here’s what came of it.
Pammy’s Tavernhouse, somewhere in the southern isles, late summer
Tom walks up to the bar, slaps down a few bits of silver, and bellows for two mugs of the “darkest beer ye got”. I protest and say that I was the one who was going to buy, but he just gives me this quick shrug and says the next round is on me. I have a funny feeling that I’ll be the one buying all the next rounds, but I accept the beer he hands me and follow him to the open patio at the back of the tavern. The view from where we’re sitting is beautiful: clear blue water, whispering, swaying palm trees, and sand that’s so white it looks like snow. I glance at Tom and see that he’s already downed about half his beer and is peering curiously at a two-masted ship that just left port.
Tom’s a big guy, but not as big as you’d think. For one, he’s not as tall as I was expecting, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in muscle; there doesn’t seem to be a lick of fat on him, and I’m sort of mesmerized for a moment just watching the way his arm bulges as he lifts the mug to his lips. He’s tanned to the colour of dark honey, and his dirty-blond hair is short and sticking up in places; there are strange tattoos that swirl and meander down his left side, and I can see more peeping above the waistband of his faded green shorts. All I can think for a moment is just how unbelievably sexy he is.
The way he’s lounging against the wood suggests a man without a care in the world—totally at ease in his environment. But, when he swivels to look at me, I get the unmistakable impression that Tom’s fully aware that he’s got an effect on me, and he’d been purposefully giving me time to look him over.
I pick up my mug, take a long swallow, and try to shake off the self-consciousness caused by the amused look in his bright, blue-green eyes.
Yes, this is a man who knows exactly how attractive he is.
After a few minutes of awkward chit-chat about tattoos (I have a few too) and another trip to the bar for more beer, I finally get around to the questions I wanted to ask.
So, Tom, there are rumours that you found a way through the Devil’s Isles and that you went beyond.
Err. Aye, mate.
(Tom frowns at me. Suddenly he’s no longer the affable, cheeky ruffian who’s going to drink me out of pocket, and I feel a little nervous. Great start to my interview)
Bad question? We can talk about something else.
(Here Tom lets out a small sigh and waves at the air before taking another swallow of beer)
Naw, lovey. It’s just that it weighs a little heavy on the mind, savvy? Weren’t meant to be crossed is what I’m thinkin’… the shite that happened. (Tom shakes his head) I don’t like thinkin’ about it. Actually. Yeah. Ask somethin’ else, mate.
(I’m a little disappointed. I wanted to ask him about what they found on the other side but I’m not going to push my luck)
Ok. No problem. How’s this one for nice and simple? You’re well known for kicking ass. What was your most memorable fight?
(Tom’s face lights up and I have to laugh. The tension’s gone again. He takes another gulp of beer and pulls the skinny cigar out from behind his ear. I wait a good five minutes while he lights it and rubs his jaw as he looks out over the water. The smoke from the cheroot is pungent—there’s more than just tobacco in it, that’s for sure. Just when I think he’s forgotten my question entirely, he turns to me with a toothy smile)
It was when I was a wee nipper. A lad o’ nine or so. I worked in the mines and, since I was a might bit skinnier back then, they had me crawlin’ into these bloody cracks deep in the fuckin’ rock. Well, one of them days, I was in a squeeze—as they call ‘em, see— and I can’t see the bloody end of my nose. I’m almost stranglin’ with rock dust, and the walls are pressin’ in on me like they wanna crush me… and I’m thinkin’ fuck this shit! So I pull meself out o’ there, wrigglin’ and scrapin’ my skin to get loose, and the big prick who was responsible for puttin’ me in the black hells to begin with gives me this look and says some shit like “Git back in there, boy!” (Tom chuckles) Well… I bloody lost it. ‘Twas the first time I’d ever really rebelled, other than…
(Tom’s forehead creases then and I get a glimpse of something that looks like pain on his expressive face, but he shakes it off and moves on with his story).
…so, I clocked the fucker in the jaw with my little fist, but surprise of bloody surprises, I hit him square and he falls back all shocked like. Problem is, this arse had these twin sons who were as big, ugly, and mean as their da, and they were comin’ up the tunnel just as I hit their old man. Well, they pounced on me like a pair o’ hellcats. I didn’t know how to punch yet, but I knew that if I kept swingin’, I’d be sure to hit somethin’, aye? Because I was little, I wasn’t no match. I didn’t think for a second that I’d win, ye know? But I had to do it. Well eventually, I got my hand around this big ol’ rock as they were punchin’ and kickin’ me over n’ over. I put all of it into that last hit and got one of ‘em boys straight in the side o’ the head. Went down like a tree.
That was your most memorable fight?
Aye, lovey. Was the first time I’d ever downed a mate. The fucker lost an eye because of me.
(Tom chuckles and takes a drag off his cigar)
Did you get away? What happened?
Nah. They beat me bloody unconscious. I was eatin’ mush for a month on account o’ the broken jaw.
(I sit silent for a second, aghast that he’s talking so nonchalantly about being so severely beaten. He sees my expression and gives me another of his little one-shouldered shrugs. He smiles)
What’s done is done, aye?
(I nod and drink down the rest of my beer. I can’t shake the image of nine-year-old Tom in the mines. I’m surprised when he reaches for my mug and goes off to get another round. I can’t take my eyes off the scars on his back. The interview’s definitely not going the way I expected. He comes back, gives me another one of his cheeky grins and manages to graze my fingers as he hands me back the mug. Suddenly I’m off-balanced again)
Um. Tell me about being a pirate?
Bloody fun. Lot’s o’ work, but bloody fun.
That’s all you’re going to tell me?
Well, I can’t speak for bein’ a regular pirate, ye see? Ain’t the same on board the Heart. We got our own way of doin’ things. It’s prey for pay, aye, but we ain’t got the same sort o’ code o’ conduct as them other mates.
Is the plunder good?
Matey, ye wouldn’t believe what’s restin’ in the hold of the ol’ tub as we speak.
(Tom gives me a broad smile, but he’s frustratingly short on details)
Ok, well how about telling me about some places you’ve been?
(Tom leans his forearms against the wide railing and rubs his scarred hands together. Deep wrinkles appear in his brow as he thinks)
I been everywhere from north t’ south. East… not so much. (I notice he purposefully doesn’t mention west across the black mountain range) Dunno, maybe some day. For now there’s plenty to be had in the midlands and around here.
Somewhere interestin’ I been? Hmm, well, two years ago, we were on the run—navy after us like ticks after a dog—and we find ourselves in a lick o’ trouble when the wind up and changes. We turn around and go through the passage just south o’ here. Ye know where those two little islands are?
(He points off to one side, but I’m really not that knowledgeable about the native geography. I’m just going to have to take his word for it)
Well instead of findin’ a bare stretch o’ sea beyond, there was this small spit o’ land. All shrouded n’ misty and shite. We manage to find a little dip in the shore where the Heart wouldn’t stick out so bad, and we dropped anchor… and waited. Hours went by and there was no sign of the scurvy bastards chasin’ us, so the captain says why dont’cha go ashore and see if ye can find us some grub to eat while we’re waitin’. I says sure, and picked three o’ my best men and rowed us out. Well… couldn’t believe my bloody eyes when we got to the shore and saw it was made o’ this hard, green rock. Slippery as all hells. We managed to crawl out and tie the dinghy up, but as far as the fuckin’ eye could see, there wasn’t nothin’ but this dark-green rock. No trees, no grass. Nothin’. So, me and the boys start walkin’. We walked and walked an’ bloody walked, but still nothin’.
(Tom takes a deep, slow swallow of beer and smiles at me. He’s got at least a half-week’s stubble on his face, and it shines golden in the bright sun)
So, it was just a rock island?
That’s what we thought! Ain’t never seen rock like it. Every few paces there were lines in it, straight n’ true. Was the weirdest fuckin’ thing. So I pull my knife out and tap it against the stone… sounded hollow so I tried pushin’ the point in and bloody hells, it sunk in a bit. So I jammed it harder n’ harder, ye know, to try to cut a piece out to bring back to Da…
(I’d heard rumours of Tom calling the captain “Da”. Were they actually father and son? And if so… what of the other things I’d heard?)
… and suddenly, the ground gives a shake and a shimmy and we’re fallin’ all over ourselves trying to stay on our feet. Then, out of the mists comes this sound…
(Tom makes a noise halfway between a growl and a sigh)
Two o’ the lads shit themselves in fear, and the third goes as white as a bloody ghost! So we’re crawlin’ on our hands and knees, trying to make our way to the shore. And I see it! Risin’ out of the mists is this thing… higher and higher it goes ’til it’s as tall as a godsdamned mountain. And then it turned… and it bloody blinked at me!
We ran, oh fuck did we run… like the bloody wind itself. Back to the bloody ship, mate. We had to tell the captain!
(I realise I’m holding my mug too tight when the old break in my hand starts to throb. I force myself to relax)
But… what was it? What did you see?
Ducky, it wasn’t a bloody island at all! We’d climbed up onto the fuckin’ back of a gigantic bloody tortoise!
(At this point I realise that Tom is taking the piss out of me, and I start to laugh)
I’m calling bullshit.
Naw, lovey. Biggest fuckin’ tortoise in the godsdamned world. Swear to the fuckin’ gods. Swear on me ma’s bones, gods rest her bloody soul.
(But Tom is laughing to himself now, his eyes narrowed in mischief. I shake my head at him and finish my beer, then I grab his mug and make another trip to the bar. When I get back, he accepts the beer with a grin and nods his head in thanks)
So… what’s it like being the first mate to Captain Baltsaros?
(Right away I can see that this is the wrong question to ask and my heart sinks. Just a minute ago we were laughing like old friends, but now Tom’s eyes have gone flat like he’s been through hell, and he looks away from me. When a few minutes go by, I realise he’s not going to answer me. Desperate to lighten the mood I ask a dumb question.)
Uh. What about… Um. I’ve heard that you’re very popular with the brothel ladies?
(I want to add “and men” but I’m not sure if I really believe the rumours. Seems too good to be true. And I’ll be damned if I bring it up—there’s this air of poised violence that lurks just beneath his bluff charm. I have no way of knowing how he’d take the question. However, when he turns to me again, the mischievous glint is back and that’s enough to make me take a quick sip of beer just to have something to do with my hands.)
Ye heard that, aye lovey? Who you been talkin’ to about me puttin’ a crack in Jenny’s cup?
(Tom grins wide and leans towards me, and all I can think about is how the hell I’m going to keep going with this interview. I’ve had a lot to drink and turning the conversation to sex was a bad idea. I break eye contact and concentrate on the drip of sweat that’s making its way down his chest and watch it get caught in his dark-blond chest hair)
I’ve just… heard things. Nothing specifically. I don’t know why I brought it up.
Ye don’t, aye? Was it because ye wanted to know whether I fancy someone wearin’ trousers instead? Hm? Do ye have a personal interest in my answer?
(Tom can obviously tell that I’m embarrassingly rattled by him, and he lets out this bark of laughter and sits back, just smiling at me. Right then, there’s a sharp double-whistle and Tom’s head swivels quickly.)
That’s the Heart. I gotta skedaddle, lovey. Thanks for the beer.
The words were spoken brusquely, but they were accompanied with a wink. Before I had a chance to respond or ask anything else, Tom clapped a warm hand on my shoulder and stood. With a spring in his step, he whistled a jaunty tune as he made his way through the bar and back to his ship.
I sat there for at least a quarter hour, just nursing my beer, waiting for my pulse to slow.
Want to meet Tom and the rest of the crew? Join them in Caged and Sacrificed, the sequel due out October 15th, 2014.