The terribleminds flash fiction challenge this week is to pen a 1000-word story with a specific title: “The Fire of the Gods.” I wrote this using one of the best characters I’ve ever worked with: a thoroughly tortured fellow inspired by my writing friend, Fred Hellmig. Given all the trials and tribulations we’ve visited upon poor Hell, I hope to all that’s holy that we never meet him in person.
“Señor Williams, you must tell us everything.” The governor of Trinidad leaned forward solemnly. “You are the only one we know who has spoken to him. He has defied all our efforts to apprehend him.”
One of the governor’s officials handed me a flask. My trembling hands nearly dropped it but I gulped some of its contents: rum burned like fire all the way down. Feeling a little steadier, I nodded and handed it back.
“The Prometheus left the Guinea Coast three months ago with a nearly-full hold,” I began. “We were bound for Hispaniola after taking on more cargo in the Canaries. Cap’n said the Colonials would pay handsome if all those Africans didn’t take sick and die first….”
“Where did you encounter the ship? What was its ensign?”
“We were just east of Barbados; I was on lookout when we spotted her. She was sailing fast with a fresh breeze on her quarter, making straight for us. Cap’n said she looked Spanish, and ordered us to raise the Burgundy Cross….”
I glassed her again. “She’s hoisting the saltire too, sir!”
“Good. Helm, stay your heading. Company to stations!”
But she wasn’t Spanish at all: once we were too close to escape she dropped the Spanish ensign and raised colours I’d never seen: a snarling dog’s head on a crimson field. It was a Red Jack, and we were beset by pirates.
Their sleek low-hulled craft was painted gray and rust, bearing a triangular headsail and huge blood-red Moorish lateens on both cocked masts. This profile lent her the appearance of prowling shark fins, and we would soon come to realize the truth of this predatory likeness. She crossed our bow with all ports open, displaying a fearsome array of armament we had no hope of countering with our small deck guns. Cap’n surrendered and we were quickly boarded by the crew of the Red Dog.
Such dedicated purpose I’ve never seen! They were so efficient it was as though they knew each other’s minds, hardly speaking a word betwixt them. In a flash they had our entire crew collected and restrained. The fools who resisted were ruthlessly cut down where they stood. The rest of us feared even to pray aloud and thus risk undue attention.
Their captain boarded us then, and under his fell gaze I must admit feeling like a doomed sparrow charmed by a serpent. This man had a dark presence about him that was difficult to quantify but easily felt. He was young and fair, slight of stature, well dressed. While not Spanish he was clearly of European descent, with reddish-blonde hair pulled back in a loose tail and hawk-sharp sea-green eyes. The sword he held at his side was long and thin, delicately curved with a long leather-wrapped hilt. As he approached, his men forced our captain down to his knees.
“Sir, you fly a Spanish flag. Whither bound and whence come you?” he calmly demanded, with a hint of an indistinct accent.
“From Arguin and Las Palmas, bound for Santo Domingo.”
The pirate’s eyes narrowed evilly. “You carry slaves to New Spain? Under Spanish contract?”
“Aye, a cargo of three-and-seventy remaining, all of good health and strong backs. We lost less than a score to the flux on this passage. Take all our cargo; just please set us free. We expected a substantial profit in Hispaniola. This sale will make you all rich men.”
He smirked at this and shook his head. “You are a far greater merchant than I, to seek trade in human souls, my lord.” His voice bore a deathly chill. “Shall I bow to you?”
I would not have believed what followed had I not seen it myself. In one smooth motion he performed a courtly bow, drawing a sweeping flourish with his sword arm. At the depth of his gesture, our good captain’s head parted neatly from his body and both pieces tumbled to the deck in a gory fountain.
The pirate straightened, casually flicked a spray of blood from the blade, and fixed us with a demon’s glare. “Now that I have your attention, hear your fate. You will sail under my command. Resist and be swiftly reunited with your captain. Comply willingly and live a while longer.”
I glanced at my fellows but saw none stupid enough to resist: they all looked as ill as I felt. The Mate nodded dumbly and called us to duty.
We sailed west to a forested islet where we released the slaves with provisions and basic tools. He took me aboard his ship while his crew collected our weapons and remaining valuables. They confined my former crew in the Prometheus’ hold; I watched with dread as the pirates broke open oil casks and set her weather-deck and sails alight. Then the Dog’s crew set the slave-ship adrift and fired a devastating broadside which must have killed most of my mates instantly. Hearing screams, I gaped in horror at the conflagration and sank to my knees.
The captain strolled up, watching the flames. “Prometheus, eh?” he mused. “It is dangerous to play with the fire of the gods, mortal, lest you get burned. Deliver this message for me in exchange for your life.”
I’d started shivering while recounting my ordeal and when offered the flask again, I emptied it.
“He freed me just this morning. His name is Captain Hell. I was to tell you: ‘Hell preys on Spain and those who serve it, in retribution for sins of Inquisition committed against both God and Man. Stop searching for the three treasure galleons you lost this spring. Their wealth is beyond your reach, being put to good use against you.’ ”
This last made them all flush. A heated exchange of some length ensued in Spanish, which I could not follow. The governor rose with a carefully-diplomatic expression and personally escorted me to the door.
“Señor Williams, you have been most cooperative. Thank you for your time.”