Dalmontenes had welcomed me home with exuberance upon my return from the witch’s domain, and he wasted no time in keeping his promise to me, to make of me a sailor. I set sail within a month of my return from downriver, and while not born near the water or reared upon it, I took to the life well enough, and soon enough I grew to love the sea and the life of a sailor—or perhaps, in the interest of truthfulness, the life of a pirate.
Even now, removed from the sea by so many miles, I can, if I concentrate, close my eyes and hear once again the creak of ship’s timbers, the stretching of rope and the snap of canvas as winds fill listless sails. I hear the cawing of gulls, feel the swaying of the ship beneath me and the thrill of its speeding, gentle but swift as a cut from a sharp blade, through the waters, smell salt in my nostrils still. I miss the sea.
I proved a better than sufficient pirate. In sort time I commanded my own ship; in short time again I managed to conquer a good Roman vessel and exchanged this for my small Marmorcan boat, rechristening the latter the Lycanon’s Curse. My ship! Your broken ribs may lie now coated with slime on the bottom of some savage river, but no pirate or privateer ever sailed upon a finer vessel! In your time, you were the pride and the terror of the northern coast! Mayhap you are sailing still…
Perhaps, my loyal readers, you wondered how it is that a man of faith, at least an occasional faith, could engage in a life of piracy. My devoted Oran, of a certainty, questioned the fact. We shared many hours of debate upon the subject.
“I give strict orders,” I explained to Oran on those occasions, each and every one of those occasions. “It is forbidden for any of my men to kill except in self-defense, and then only if it is unavoidable. We do not execute prisoners. If they lay down their arms, I guarantee that none are harmed. Any of the men who desire it are welcomed to join my crew. How many have with gladness thrown off their Roman yoke to join the Marmorca? You know this is true.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And those who will not join us, I leave them their ships, disabled but not burned. And I leave them with food and water enough to survive a spell at sea. There can be honor found even in the life of a pirate, I believe.”
“But it is still thievery!” Oran would always protest.
“Stealing from the Empire,” I would answer. “Have not the Romans stolen everything they possess? What we take from them is not theirs. They stole it from others!”
“Do you then return to those who have been robbed of their riches? I think not!”
“I return them to others who have been robbed. The Marmorca.”
“You return to them something that never belonged to them in the first place? How is that possible?”
“I steal from the wolf to feed lambs,” I would conclude. “People have to eat, after all.”
I did not find these two things incompatible, the life of a praying man and the life of a pirate, even if Oran did so.
Also, I confess I achieved for myself no small success at piracy. My little hut, which I shared with my two wives—the reader will recall that my dear Elsora was also my wife, even if I never took her to my bed—and with Oran I soon exchanged for one larger and grander. No smaller, in fact, than the house of Dalmontenes the Chieftain. I lived well. I prospered. And as I did so, my legend grew.
I have to bear part of the blame for this myself. The name of my ship, my standard, the wolf’s head, these I used to my advantage, preferring to wield fear as a weapon instead of drawing my sword. Reputation served me well but it also, in time, brought me to much misery.
One incident in particular I blame for this latter. It occurred after I had been sailing the Lycanon’s Curse for a few years. We were on our way to port after a few days at sea; I never stayed away for too long at a time from home and Samaethea. We’d chanced upon a merchant ship that had, I surmised, been blown from its usual waters, a fat goose ripe for plucking, too tempting to pass up. I’d given the order to take it, the wolf’s head flag had been raised and we’d born down on the helpless vessel to strip it clean. Helpless I had believed her to be, but that ship’s crew had fought harder than a legion of Centurions, and for a far more meager cargo than I had expected.
We’d gotten up alongside them, preparing to board, when I’d caught an arrow in the thigh. Then happened something for which the old woman, N’sua, had not prepared me; I expect that she herself had not known, or guessed, that such a thing could happen. The arrow had hit the main artery and I would of a certainty have bled to death. Would have, had I not transformed into the Doghead. Why did this happen? I still do not know. My best explanation is this: the beast had been kept docile, sleeping, for years by that point, but the threat of impending death had awakened it and the impetus to self-preservation spurred it into action. The reader will recall that years earlier when I had attempted to destroy myself the beast had likewise exerted its influence to prevent my suicide. I expect this incident in question represents a similar action.
The Lycanon’s Curse had still not gotten quite close enough for us to board the merchant vessel. There remained a distance between the two ships about as wide as our deck; one can scare imagine the terror and consternation of the crew of that merchant ship when the Doghead, at a running leap, landed on theirs. All fight left them at that point. They were seized by blind panic; those of them not seized by the jaws of the enraged werewolf, that is.
My crew managed to get a net over me and get me locked away in our ship’s hold before I could kill any of our crew—they had long feared such a thing as this might occur and had prepared for it. Only a handful of our enemies died that day. Most of them survived the experience, survived to return to their home port with their stories of how they, with their own eyes, had seen the Werewolf of the Barbary Coast, had scarce escaped its jaws. In time, those firsthand accounts would yield a bitter fruit, reaching the ears of the Emperor himself, and from this would stem my misfortune. But not for some time yet.
For years, save for that one incident, the beast slumbered, drugged and complacent. I lived free of it and I knew happiness. For the first time since my early childhood, when the curse had befallen me, I knew happiness.
It could not last.