As I mentioned a few weeks ago in NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge at the urging of some of my writer pals. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:
The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge. When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group. Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here). After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge. In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment. The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.
I didn’t do particularly well in the contest, and I did not make the semi-finals. What are you gonna do? Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts and the stories I wrote with them.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Location: A ship’s cabin
- Object: A black and white photo
Like “No Guns, No Knives,” the story for “The Dread Scotsman” came pretty quick, maybe too quick. You can read it below.
The Dread Scotsman
“There she is, sir,” Sergeant Pennyworth said and lowered his spyglass.
Lieutenant Nigel Armstrong peered over the gunwales of The Eagle at the ship speeding toward them. The HMS Saber flew the Union Jack but was no longer part of the British Navy, nor was its captain, formerly Commander Angus MacLeod, now known as The Dread Scotsman.
“Ready the men,” Nigel said.
Pennyworth turned and signaled to the Royal Marines hidden among the crew of The Eagle. Nigel’s unit had been loaned out to the whaling vessel after The Dread Scotsman had murdered the crews of three others and the Crown had finally chosen to intercede.
The marines took their positions while The Eagle’s crew, many of them casting terrified glances at the approaching pirate vessel, went about their business. Nigel had assured The Eagle’s captain, Arthur Hayes, two dozen marines were more than a match for MacLeod’s crew, now composed primarily of criminals from Barbados and St. Lucia.
Watching The Saber barrel in, Nigel hoped his promise to Captain Hayes hadn’t been bravado, and his hands slipped to the hilt of his cutlass and the butt of his pistol. He longed for a rifle, but long guns would reveal their presence too soon.
The Saber carried cannons, but Macleod wouldn’t use them. A whaling ship like The Eagle was too fat a prize. No, this would be a boarding action, up close and brutal.
The Saber came alongside The Eagle, its gunwales swarming with men clutching knives, sabers, and pistols. MacLeod was among them, towering over the tallest of his men, his red hair and beard like a bloody wreath around his head. He clenched an archaic Scottish backsword in one massive fist and a double-barreled pistol in the other. Around his neck hung a string of silver plates, daguerreotypes portraying his many victims in their final moments. The ghoulish trophies were courtesy of one Alistair Coke, a naturalist and photographer who’d had the profound misfortune to be aboard the first whaling vessel MacLeod had taken.
The battle began with smoke and thunder as the pirates unleashed a fusillade of pistol fire. Nigel threw himself to the deck, as did the marines behind him. They had orders to wait until the pirates were on board to reveal their presence. MacLeod might turn tail if he knew he faced experienced soldiers and not a ship full of terrified whalers.
At the thud of boots on The Eagle’s deck Nigel sprang to his feet, weapons in hand. He shot the nearest pirate through the throat, parried a saber thrust from another, then split the man’s skull with his cutlass.
The rest of his marines joined the fray. All were skilled combatants, and they slashed and blasted their way through the pirates with grim efficiency. Smoke and screams filled the air, and a dozen of MacLeod’s men lay dead in moments. None of this deterred the Dread Scotsman. He wielded his backsword like a barbarian warlord, smashing aside his opponents’ blades, then running them through or cracking their skulls with the butt of his pistol. As he fought, the daguerreotypes around his neck made a terrible staccato clatter, like metal teeth gnashing together.
Nigel needed to get MacLeod’s attention. He cut down a pirate, grabbed the man’s pistol, and fired. From thirty feet away his chances of hitting the Scotsman were slim, but luck was with him, and the ball grazed MacLeod’s cheek. With a bellow of surprise and outrage, the Scotsman whirled toward Nigel.
Good, Nigel thought and moved toward the nearest hatch. It led down to the captain’s cabin. Across the deck, MacLeod surged in Nigel’s direction, smashing marines out of his way with blows from his pistol butt or whirling cuts from his sword.
Nigel fled down the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest. He was a skilled swordsman, but MacLeod’s strength and size were advantages not easily overcome, at least not where the Scotsman had room to swing his larger blade.
The captain’s cabin was small, ten feet by ten feet, an ideal battleground for a man armed with a shorter cutlass . . .
MacLeod thundered down the steps behind Nigel. His eyes blazed with wrath, and he threw a wide sweeping cut, his blade humming through the air like a swarm of angry bees. Nigel stopped the backsword with a stiff parry, but the shock of the brute’s attack nearly ripped the cutlass from his hand. He wouldn’t last long trading blows with MacLeod.
The Scotsman, sensing his victory, grinned, exposing a mouthful of crooked yellowed teeth. “Are ye ready for your portrait, Lieutenant,” he said, his brogue thick and menacing.
“Only if you’ll comb my hair, you overstuffed haggis,” Nigel replied.
MacLeod roared and launched an overhand strike that would have split his foe from nose to navel had it landed. Instead, the tip of the Scotsman’s sword plowed into the low ceiling and stuck. It was what Nigel had been waiting for. He lunged, a thrust his fencing master at the academy would have lauded, and drove a foot of steel through MacLeod’s right eye. The tip of Nigel’s blade burst from the back of the Scotsman’s skull, and MacLeod toppled over backward and crashed to the floor, his daguerreotypes clattering like a death rattle.
Sergeant Pennyworth came down the steps a heartbeat later. When he saw MacLeod’s corpse he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the lord, sir. I was sure that beastly Scotsman had done for you.”
Nigel offered the sergeant a shaky smile. “Not today. How’d we fare?” The gunfire and sounds of battle had faded from above.
“Six dead on our side, but we killed thirty of theirs at least. The rest have laid down their arms.”
Nigel nodded and considered the Dread Scotsman’s corpse at his feet. “Sergeant, find that Alistair Coke fellow if he’s still alive, the naturalist and photographer MacLeod had aboard. I think there’s one last image he might like to capture.”
The toughest part of the prompt for me was the black and white photo because action/adventure immediately took my mind to pirates, and I just couldn’t shake the idea in the limited time I had to write. I also made it harder on myself by essentially writing historical fiction, which requires a level of research that’s hard to pull off in this kind of timeframe. My biggest hurdle was simply that photos and most folks’ idea of pirates are usually separated by at least a century, so I had a real challenge. I fudged a little (okay, a lot) and used an early form of photography (daguerreotypes) and set the story in the 1840s where sailing vessels were still a thing. The story won’t hold up to any kind of real historical scrutiny, of course, but I had fun with it.
I think “The Dread Scotsman” is a better story than “No Guns, No Knives,” though it still has issues (historical accuracy notwithstanding). The reviewers mostly liked it, but they pointed out what is likely the story’s biggest weakness. The stakes for Nigel and his marines aren’t clearly defined. They need to feel and express more peril, and their fate, should they fail to defeat the Dread Scotsman, needs to be explored a bit more. Now, there’s likely room to do that with this story and still keep it at flash length, and I might even consider submitting it somewhere IF there were a market for action/adventure stories. I scoured Duotrope and found exactly one that would take a story like this. So “The Dread Scotsman” becomes blog fodder, and I’m okay with that.