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The Allegiance of the Damned
October, 1755
There is no greater nightmare to a Nordic sailor than drowning in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Only the terror of being devoured by a kraken could rival the fear of being lost overboard in those ice-filled seas in which the cold’s dagger-like fingers slash into the unprotected flesh to freeze the heart.
Dutch Captain Rutger Vogel knew this terror well for it sped his own heart. He saw it mirrored in the pleading eyes of his ten crewman as they peered back at him from the pitching, ice-covered decks of the Lilith, a 154-foot schooner sailing north through the English Channel, And still, the seasoned captain’s heart burned with more powerful emotions than the fear of an icy death in the stormy seas of the North Atlantic. Vogel’s desires even outweighed his compassion for his fellow shipmates. His insanity was born from the dire needs of jealousy and revenge. His desperate needs demanded that he return to his home outside Amsterdam by the quickest means possible and at whatever the cost.
“Rutger, I beg you,” Bram, the first mate, shouted above the winds whistling through the ice-covered rigging, “We must lower sails and find the protection of a cove or port to wait out this storm. This is suicide. You must consider the lives of the crew and your passengers. These rains are freezing the sails. Soon the wind gusts will tear them to shreds and we will be left to the mercy of these twenty-foot swells. If someone is killed, you will be forever condemned as a murderer for your reckless seamanship.”
A dog’s mournful howl filled the air to Vogel’s right as if to reinforce the first mate’s plea. Vogel tore his eyes from the helm and torrent horizon to glance in that direction. Skye, a Siberian husky, was tied to the side rail of the poop deck. She was the picture of misery. Her gray-and-white fur was soaked and dangled with icicles. Her head and tail drooped with a combination of fear and depression. Even her luminescent blue eyes appeared dull with foreboding. The sight of Skye’s pain was one of the few things that could soften Vogel’s heart and awaken his mind to their danger. Not only was she the ship’s mascot, beloved by all, but she was Vogel’s personal dog and his closest friend. She’d been given to him as a puppy three years earlier by his wife, Mina, to be his warm companion on his long nights at sea.
“Long and happy life, pretty girl,” Vogel said with a warm smile toward the miserable dog. Vogel’s pity for Skye’s situation was quickly overwhelmed by his anger when he recalled whom had given him the gorgeous husky.
“No!” Vogel shouted back at Bram “We continue under full sail. There will be no slowing until we are back in Amsterdam! I must get home to deal with Mina’s treachery.”
“Then this is a true measure of your insanity,” Bram yelled. His face was a mask of rage and disbelief. “Use your head, Rutger. How can you believe the lies of a wine merchant who you insulted first by questioning the cost of his swill. He was a French pig who probably doesn’t even know Mina. He couldn’t tell you the name of the man she was dancing with at the ball. He couldn’t give you a description other than that the man was tall and dark haired. That describes half your friends. Are you willing to sacrifice all our lives for what is probably a Frenchman’s lie or an innocent dance between your devoted wife and a loyal friend? Rutger! Listen to me. Yes, your wife is one of the most beautiful women in all the Netherlands, but no one could love you more. Remember, I’ve known Mina longer than you, but even I knew it was a lost cause to pursue her further when I saw the way she looks at you. She worships the ground on which you walk. That mangy mutt of yours would betray you before Mina might consider it. You two have the perfect marriage. The only thing that might drive her away is your insane jealousy and lack of trust.”
“How many years have we sailed together, Bram? It seems like a lifetime,” Vogel asked with a heavy sigh. He briefly fought with the helm as another massive wave crashed over the bow. “No man knows me better. You know I cannot forsake my instincts. I cannot give up this quest for truth and justice. I must continue forward no matter what the danger to myself.”
“I cannot say that I understand this insanity, since I have never known the kind of love you must feel for Mina. But I believe you to be a fair man, Rutger. If you will not forsake this quest, as you call it, then at least give the crew a choice whether to continue the voyage through this storm or to seek safety for now. Their lives are in danger as well. As for me, you know my vote. I will follow you until we sail over the edge of the Earth, my friend.” Skye woofed as if to lend her vote of confidence.
Vogel paused a moment as if indecisive. He was the captain after all, the one and only master of the Lilith. It was solely his responsibility to get its crew, cargo, and twenty-one passengers safely to their destination. A sailing ship is not a democracy. To invite the crew’s participation in the decision making of running the ship is to invite chaos; to show weakness in his leadership. But he was indecisive, and wondered if he was being irrational by pushing too hard when rationalism screamed for caution in such treacherous waters. What proof did he have, after all, other than a Frenchman’s word of Mina’s adultery? What was he going to do when he did get back to Amsterdam and she denied the whole incident? Beat a confession out of her? The very thought of laying a harmful hand on Mina sickened him. So what was the point of rushing home; risking everyone’s life? Because he had to know, damn it! The very thought of the woman to whom he’d given his heart and soul might have betrayed his trust and love was killing him. He simply had to know. If Mina had truly betrayed him, he didn’t think he could continue. Life wouldn’t be worth living. Still, that was his personal decision. There were 31 other people, and a dog, who still depended on him to get them to safety.
Vogel peered out over the pitching bow. The dark-gray clouds came right down to the torrent horizon. There was no evidence of a warming sun in any direction, only different degrees of artic darkness. Powerful gusts blew down from the north carrying dagger-like slivers of sleet. The seascape appeared angry and hostile. Misting whitecaps crested atop huge swells as far as one could see. The ship’s decks seemed to dance beneath his feet with a life of their own that made the ship moan as if in physical pain. The frigid air wickedly slapped at Vogel’s numb face. The sounds of howling, whistling winds and flapping canvas filled his painful ears. He tried to move his arms and legs but found them frozen in place. His hands were claw-like attachments to the wheel. His oilskin slicker cracked with ice when the ship’s violent pitching forced his body to sway for balance. The cold harshness of the environment was simply too much for Vogel’s already torn and fragile mind. He could no longer endure the responsibilities of his commanding position. He turned his gaze down to the nine men and the twelve-year-old boy who were huddled around the base of the main mast. Lashed to the mast to keep from being washed from the pitching deck by the overflowing waves, they appeared a cold and miserable lot in their oilskin slickers and hoods.
“Men, I demand your attention,” Vogel shouted above the blusterous winds. He waited until the majority of the hooded heads had listlessly turned in his direction as if to lend some distraction from their misery. “Bram has brought it to my attention that the seas have become too dangerous and that it might be safer to return to a port to wait out this storm. Mostly for personal reasons, I’m against this delay. Still, since I detect no end to this storm, we shall put the question of our continued voyage up to a vote.” Vogel noted the surprised expressions of the men that hadn’t sailed with him before. They obviously weren’t accustomed to being given a voice in the ship’s decisions. “The nearest port is Dunkerque, France, at least a day’s sail to the east. Then we’d be delayed another day or two while we tried to round you up again after you disappeared in search of cheap wine and whores.” This brought a few grim smiles and chuckles from the subdued men. “That is one delay we can do without, and one I am sure your wives and families would prefer you missed. Let me remind you that we also have paying passengers aboard and that we have a schedule to keep. If we delay too long, the ship owners might deduct any lost fares from your pay. We have survived rounding the Horn and a gale off the Slave Coast. I have no doubt that if you maintain your faith in me that we shall pass safely through this squall as well.” Vogel noted that some of the older crewmen still appeared skeptical, and he wondered if he hadn’t made light of the storm by calling it a “squall.”
The men began muttering amongst themselves, not a good sign. Vogel could tell that he was losing them to the lure and safety of a flea-and-tick-infested French bed. His urgency to bend the men’s will to his way renewed his rage and desperation. He played his last card. “As an extra incentive for you to continue the voyage without delay, I promise to divide my wages in equal shares amongst each of you.” Bram hissed in shock. Most of the sailors’ faces brightened with smiles of rotting or missing teeth. However, a few remained doubtful and scowling after a particularly large swell soaked everyone on deck with another icy shower. “Plus!” Vogel shouted. “As an added bonus, I will add fifteen gold pieces to each of your shares if we arrive in Amsterdam a day ahead of schedule. What do you say? Are you with me?”
Vogel thought he had the men. He’d effectively tripled their wages for this voyage and made it possible for some of them not to have to sail again till the spring thaws and fair weather.
“Does the lad here get an equal share?” shouted a bearded, elderly sailor, referring to the twelve-year-old cabin boy. Ole Larsson. Ole turned and beamed back at Vogel. His blue eyes bristled with hope; his curly mounds of blond hair escaped from beneath his dripping hood.
Vogel smiled warmly at the sailors’ loyalty to their young mate. “Ja, Ole will earn an extra share equal to his normal percentage of a full sailor’s wage.”
Skye woofed softly as if asking about her incentive for enduring this horrid weather while lashed to the poop deck without cover. Vogel turned toward her and said, “I didn’t forget you, little girl. I’ll see if we can’t find you a meaty ham bone and a dry floor next to my cabin heater.” The gleam briefly reappeared in Skye’s blue eyes before she raised her nose in an eerie howl and wagged her soaked tail. Vogel took the howl as a sign that she was content with his promise, but he couldn’t he sure since the dog was so vocal regarding just about anything which struck her fancy from one moment to the next.
“Captain?” shouted the elderly sailor who’d asked about Ole’s share.
“Yes, Nils?” responded Vogel.
“I have tallied our votes. Eight agree to continue with only two voting for the safety of going ashore. We swear to continue our service to you and the ship, Captain.”
“Thank you for your allegiance men” Vogel shouted with visible relief. “And I swear to get you safely to our destination.”
“Well done, Rutger,” Bram muttered just loud enough to be heard above the flapping sails. “You were able to get the men to cooperate easily enough. Now can you get Lilith and this damn storm to heel to your desires?”
“If it is God’s will,” Vogel said uneasily, now unsure of himself. A streak of lightning split the darkness a few miles off the port bow. The explosive thunder followed almost immediately. Some of the crewman exclaimed with fear. Others crossed themselves. Skye cowered to the deck and whimpered.
“I think you have God’s answer,” Bram said grumpily.
Another flash lit the crews’ startled faces. The thunder shook their bones. The winds strengthened as the storm seemed to suddenly intensify. The waves crashed over the portside and bow with new heights and ferocity. Vogel was having to wrestle with the wheel with all his strength. The crewmen were on the verge of panic just moments following their vow to fight the storm.
“Rutger, I beg you,” Bram pleaded. “Reduce sail and head for port while we still have a chance.”
Vogel didn’t respond to Bram, but instead made a plea of his own. “Dear Lord, I have never prayed to you before, and I know it might be too late to start, but I beg you to help us reach our destination safely.”
The most violent and brilliant flash of lightning yet tore through the clouds seemingly directly overhead the main mast. The crewmen threw themselves onto the icy deck before the thunder could wash out their screams of terror. The smell of ozone filled the air. Vogel remained defiantly rooted at the helm. All his raw emotion and anger were directed toward the heavens.
“Damn you, Lord!” he shouted. “You have taken away my wife and ruined my life. If you turn your back on us now, then the hell with you! I forsake my soul to Satan if he is the only one who finds it worthy.”
Vogel gazed down on the crew. They were staring back at him with wide-eyed terror and disbelief.
“Rutger, What have you done?” Bram whispered hoarsely His face was ashen with fear “These men just swore their allegiance to you, and now you’ve condemned them to Hades”
Vogel huffed and laughed. A crooked smile of disbelief crossed his features as he shook his head to deny such insanity. Abruptly the skies directly overhead erupted again. This time the lightning seemed to flicker about the castle for a second before disappearing back into the black clouds. The crewmen let out renewed cries of fear when an eerie red glow appeared in the castle and began to slowly spread down the main mast toward the position of the men lashed to its base.
“Is that red light Saint Elmo’s Fire?” asked naïve Ole with huge eyes.
“That is no blessing from a saint, son,” Nils responded. He had his rigging knife out and was hacking away at the rope which had his waist lashed to the mast. “That is the arm of Lucifer slithering down to claim his souls.”