A bit of the work in progress:
Caid Murad Reis returned the wolf-smiles of his crew with his own.
And why not smile? Surely finding a fat merchant becalmed so close to Sallee is a sign that God favors our enterprise?
As there wasn’t a good man among the crew, such signs were less wasteful than the usual methods he had to resort to in order to ensure his commands were followed. Always, the new men among the crew wanted to test him, wanted to see if the white Muslim was truly fit to lead the brotherhood.
Such behavior had only become more common since he’d sent his son off to Grantville to plumb their secrets. The other Captains all believed he was trying to place his son beyond their reach, or worse, questioned his conversion to Islam. They campaigned, in whispers, against him. Their short-sighted bigotry would eventually prove their undoing, but for now Reis needed every cruise he undertook to result in easy profits and many slaves.
The rowers of Allah’s Mercy were drawing them steadily closer to the foreign fluyt, as they had since sighting the vessel some hours ago. By his reckoning, less than half an hour remained until the sharks were fed the blood of unbelievers.
Murad Reis, born Janszoon, shaded blue eyes with one hand, staring hard at the slack banner hanging from the mast of the taller vessel. Several pale faces at the stern of the ship stood staring at their approaching doom.
“Hamburg?” he murmured.
“Would explain why they are alone–no convoys like the Spaniards or English,” his first mate, Usem, said from beside him. ”Though it’s strange they should be this close in to shore.”
Murad shrugged, “Not after the storms of last week, then the calm and current to drag them close.”
Usem nodded, white turban sparkling with jewels.
“Raise our banner, let them know who comes for them.”
“Yes, Captain.” Usem gestured.
Moments later a young sailor unfurled the banner of the Sallee Rovers, a gold man-in-the-moon on a red background, from the mast.
“Brothers, we will soon set upon the infidel and take his goods, his ship, and the lives of any who resist!”
A crashing, ululating cheer greeted his words.
“Man the guns and make ready, then!”
Murad and Usem joined the crews of the three cannon in the bow. The xebec, like a galley, had limited broadside armament because of the oars, and so mounted three of its thirteen guns in the bow. Because it lacked the banks of rowers of a true galley, it didn’t have the sheer speed of such a ship, either, allowing them to make only about four, perhaps five, knots. Still, they closed the distance, coming to within six hundred paces.
A meaty thump, like a mallet striking flesh, came from the gun-captain of the starboard bow gun.
A sharp crack reached his ears just as Murad turned to look at his slowly slumping sailor.
“Wha-“ the man gurgled, crimson staining his lips.
Something whistled through the air above Murad. Another crack rolled across the water to him.
Murad ducked instinctively, the men about him doing the same.
He saw it then, a tiny flash of light from one corner of the stern of the fluyt, like a gunshot, but no cottony cloud of gunsmoke.
Shooting at us, from there? That’s–another of his cannoneers reeled back, arm dangling by a thread of meat–impossible!
Again the sharp cracking noise rolled across the waves.
“Down!” Murad shouted, unnecessarily. His men were already pushing tight behind the cannon, fighting for space.
Something rang off the cannon directly in front of him with a sound like hell’s own hammer, then went whistling through the air between he and Usem.
Merciful Allah, how many guns does this man have?
That evil crack again.
The men were now leaning forward, close to the deck, as if bracing against a gale.
Murad raised his head, gauging the distance. Almost five hundred yards still separated the ships.
“Faster!” he bellowed, “Row faster!”
Usem rose up to repeat the Captain’s order. He lost his life for it. The round took him in the jaw, sending teeth and bone rattling wetly across the deck behind his toppling corpse.
“Merciful Allah!” someone screamed.
“Faster!” Murad barked, the now-expected crack punctuating his order.
The slaves responded at last, pulling harder at their oars. Slowly, the ship built speed. Several breaths passed without one of the horrible flashes, only the groan of wood on wood and the cries of the man who’d lost his arm. They were nearly four hundred yards out when the next flash appeared.
A dimly visible red-orange light appeared at the end of the flash. Barely visible, it crossed the space between the two ships and sailed by well above the deck.
This time, the crack of the gun was nearly drowned in the cheering of his crew.
“Down, you fools!”
A second dirty streak of light was sent their way, again appearing to have gone high. Another cheer from the men.
“Closer!” he shouted.
The crew shouted wordless aggression. Glad his men were less afraid of the strange weapon than he, Murad looked up to offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving. It was then that he saw a tiny curl of smoke rising from the furled mainsail.
As he stared, another of the burning things struck the furled sail along the spar just port of the mast. It went in, and didn’t exit. Colored smoke began seeping from the hole as the noise of the shot followed the results across the water.
“Water the sail!” Murad’s shouted order held more of an edge of panic to it than he wished.
Nearly all the crew looked up and saw the reason for the order. A collective groan went through them.
Hassan, youngest of the brotherhood and the quickest climber among them, stood to his duty and grabbed the bucket line. In moments he was straddling the spar. He dragged the first of the buckets up and started to pour it over the growing smokey stretch of sail.
The next red-orange streak ended in Hassan’s ribs. The boy shrieked, overbalanced, and fell. Even striking the deck from such a height did not end the pain for poor Hassan, who lay writhing, as if the thing that struck him continued to burn inside his flesh.
The crew moaned. Hassan was well-liked.
Murad stepped across the boy, who lay twitching like a wounded scorpion, broken limbs flailing.
Murad’s sword hissed from its sheath.
A small mercy.