A cannonball crashed through the wall of Buccaneer Jones’ tiny cabin. He yelped and fell out of his bunk, then frantically scurried underneath it. He stared through the hole in the wall at the raging ocean outside, and the pirate ship that was rapidly approaching.
There was a thunderous noise from above as The Singing Seal returned fire with its own cannons. Buccaneer grabbed a padded hat from a hook and rammed it onto his head, the thick material covering his ears to muffle the sounds. He picked up a dog-eared old botanical encyclopedia then shuffled back beneath his bunk and tried his hardest to ignore the battle around him, even as sea water sloshed into his cabin from the hole and the smell of gunpowder swirled around him.
The two ships closed the distance until men and women could swing from one to another with cutlasses gripped between their teeth. Now shouts and laughter filled the air, punctuated with pistol shots and the clang of swords.
Buccaneer sighed and started to hum loudly. Despite his name, Buccaneer didn’t like fighting. In fact, he hated it, just like he hated his name. To his friends he was just Bucc. Not that he had many. Bucc was considered odd by most people. He didn’t like violence, couldn’t stand loud noises, and he willingly washed at least once a week. How were you supposed to treat someone who didn’t like to fight, pillage, and drink?
Bucc’s door was suddenly kicked open and his parents rushed into the cabin. His dad was tall and gangly, with a bald head while his mum was a stout woman with thick blonde braids. Both were grinning excitedly and had their weapons drawn. As his dad approached him, the black scaled, snake-like creature, that was draped around his neck lifted its head and hissed towards the growing puddle that was leaking in through the hole. Its spiked fins quivered agitatedly.
“What are you still doing in here, Buccaneer?” asked his dad. As he spoke, he absently motioned with one hand towards the water. The water rose up and snaked its way back through the hole and into the sea beyond. He always cast magic with his injured hand, the missing thumb made it more difficult to hold his cutlass. “Come quick. Big Tim got a splinter in his eye. We need you to man the cannon.”
“You’re not serious.”
His mum repositioned her two iron mallets then grabbed him by the hand. Their weight didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. Bucc tried to huddle further away but a six-legged cat with horns pulled itself from under a thick blonde braid and dropped from his mum’s shoulder, moving behind him. His mum pulled him forward, her clothing making a swirl of bright colours with every slight movement. “It’s time for you to become a real pirate. When the adrenaline starts pumping through you, you’ll realise what you’re missing out on. It’ll be just like back in the old days.”
Bucc didn’t have time to argue. He was pulled from his cabin and dragged through the maze of wooden corridors up to the deck, emerging into a scene of chaos as pirates fought all around them. Some swung above their heads on ropes, while others fell into the water below where they continued to fight with other floating pirates.
Tendrils of water rose up from the waves to lash out at anything nearby while jets of fierce wind knocked unwary pirates overboard and blew into others’ eyes as they tried to aim their pistols. Familiars of all shapes and sizes scurried across the deck or swooped through the sky. Bucc had no idea how anybody could tell friend from foe through the pandemonium.
His dad pushed him towards an unmanned cannon. “Go and shoot some seadogs. Do us proud, my boy!”
His parents rushed off into the thick of the battle. His mum’s familiar, Shayla, immediately leapt at the closest attacker and clawed his face while Nadir, his dad’s familiar, wrapped around his master’s arm and lashed out at anybody who got too close. His parents’ ferocity and teamwork saw them cut a clean path through the chaos.
Bucc stared at the cannon, then at the battle. All of the movement and noise was too much for him. He just needed to do something so he could leave as quickly as possible. The cannon was already aimed perfectly at the other ship but Bucc didn’t want to damage someone else’s home. There would be young children and injured people still on the ship, just like there was on The Singing Seal. He didn’t want to risk any lives. Bucc unlocked the cannon’s pivot and tried to turn it but the cannon didn’t budge.
The metal suddenly lurched. Bucc looked to his side to see Jesse and Adward Reeds, fair haired siblings and Bucc’s only friends.
“What you doing?” Jesse asked in her soft, slightly playful manner.
“My parents won’t let me stay in my cabin. They said I have to take part in this stupid battle. I don’t want to hurt anyone though. But if they find I haven’t fired a single shot then they’ll make me walk the plank!”
Adward made a sympathetic shrug. “It was only a matter of time until they put their foot down about it. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. Look, just help me aim at that figurehead on the front of their ship. It causes wanton destruction without hurting anybody. Everyone’s happy.”
“If you say so,” Adward said. “Skin grows back. Art doesn’t. But whatever. It isn’t a very good carving anyway.”
The three strained against the heavy metal, slowly bringing it around until it clicked. The weapon was built to lock every few inches to stop it from swinging around in rough weather. Bucc pulled the lever to unlock it again then moved the cannon a slight bit further until it was staring down the shark-shaped figurehead.
He grabbed a cannonball and barely managed to lift it off the ground. Adward helped him to lift it into the barrel of the cannon while Jesse lit the fuse with an excited giggle. Bucc took several steps back and put his fingers in his ears. The ship hit a wave and the cannon fired, shooting the cannonball over the figurehead to splash harmlessly into the sea beyond.
Bucc sighed with relief. “Well, we tried our best. Nothing more we can do here. Let’s leave the fighting to the experts, eh?”
“Come on, Bucc. We can at least try one more time,” said Jesse. She was already replacing the gunpowder and fuse. “Just think of the reputation we’d get for blowing up that ugly shark head.”
“Fine. One more shot.”
He took a step towards the cannon only to be thrown back as a cannonball smashed into it from the opposite ship. Bucc picked himself up and stared at the twisted metal. Jesse stood with the torch held above the wreckage, her face white. Adward was laid on his back but gave a shaky thumbs up.
“On second thought, one shot was plenty. That’s enough battle for the next, ah, I don’t know… fifty years at least. I’m out!”
Bucc ran to the door and skidded down the stairs. Breathing heavily, his feet pounded across the wood until he threw himself into his cabin. He sat in the corner beside an old boot filled with dirt and hugged his knees as he tried to curl into himself. Jesse and Adward joined him a few moments later.
“Not to point out the obvious,” started Adward, “but you do know that you’ll not be able to avoid fighting for much longer. In a few days we’ll have the Awakening and then we’ll be full pirates. You’ll have to fight then. It’s who we are.”
“But why is that who we are?” Bucc snapped back. “I don’t want to be a pirate. Just you wait, at the ceremony when they unlock my gift, I’m going to have an affinity for earth and then go to an island to become a farmer. That’s my dream.”
“Earth is a pretty rare gift. Not as rare as fire, but there’s no guarantee that’s what you’ll get,” Jesse tried to point out gently. She pulled on one of her pigtails as she spoke.
“Maybe there isn’t, but our affinities are supposed to represent our soul. I love nature, and watching plants grow. I know all about them, and have already grown some myself. I’m gentle and nurturing, what other element could I be?” Bucc picked up the old boot and showed it off proudly as he spoke. Inside was the first shoot of a daffodil.
There were a series of cheers from above. Through the hole in his wall, Bucc could see the other ship pull away. The sounds of gunshots and fighting fell quiet.
“Looks like we won this one,” Jesse said with a small smile. She had the heart of a true pirate, it was everything else that let her down. She was small for her age, spoke softly, and had major anxiety around people. It would take a lot for her to win respect as a warrior. She was the kind of person who would always try anyway.
“Good,” muttered Bucc. “At least my folk should be in a good mood. They’re always happy when we win a skirmish.”
A bell rang out to call all of The Seal’s crew to the deck. Bucc placed the shoe in the light that spilled out from the damaged wall, then the three of them made their way out of the cabin. As they emerged into the hustle of the deck, some pirates were putting out fires and clearing debris, while others were already breaking open casks of rum to celebrate. Hundreds of people were crammed onto the deck. A near equal number of familiars filled the remaining space, clinging to their owners or darting through the crowds playfully. Together, they were the Singing Seal family.
This was how Pirate society was formed in Hylantia. With so little land to support settlements, vast ships were built over many years. These ships became mobile villages where hundreds of pirates of all ages lived. Most pirates only spent a day or two on dry land each year.
Bucc found his parents standing over the remains of the cannon he had been asked to man. His mum held her hat in her hands solemnly as his father inspected the crumpled metal.
“Poor thing,” his father said quietly. “She was a good cannon, wasn’t she? Pity it had to end like this.”
“Err, I’m okay,” Bucc announced. “Just in case you were wondering what had happened to me.”
“Course you are,” his mum said. “You’re a Jones. Mine and your Pa’s families have survived since the dawn of time. That takes a special luck, that does. Born survivors, you see. Why, the chances of you dying early just seem ridiculous.”
Bucc frowned. He passed the speech through his head a second time but it didn’t make any more sense.
“You do know that everyone alive today is only alive because their families survived, right?”
“See! That’s you thinking with your head again instead of your heart. Bad habit, is that,” his father said sagely.
“Hearts don’t think, they pump blood!” Bucc started to argue.
A gunshot cut through the noise and silenced the crowd as a man in a yellow frock coat stepped up onto the helm. It was the captain of the Singing Seal, Golden Gus. He held a smoking pistol in his hand and an oversized hat rested atop his matted hair. He looked fairly plain aside from a fake nose made of gold that was strapped to his face.
“Well done, me hearties!” Captain Gus announced in a bellowing voice. “Those seadogs thought they could pluck a crow with us but we proved them wrong, didn’t we!”
The crowds cheered and raised mugs of ale in celebration.
“It was a good fight. Just enough to get the old blood pumping. A few bumps and bruises were passed around, but all in all a fun little encounter with the devils, eh?”
This was met with more shouts and cheers. Captain Gus motioned for calm again. “Our poor Seal took a beating though. Sightsaw has just confirmed that Cantruug is vacant, so we set sail for the island to make our repairs and restock. The Seal’s too unstable for the riftways. I want a team of wayfarers assembled and ready. Everyone else to your stations!”
The captain’s familiar, a winged bat-like creature with a wicked beak, cawed assertively. It surveyed the crew before taking off into the air. Sightsaw was the captain’s eyes and ears.
Bucc watched the pirates return to their business. Relatively few crewmembers were needed to actually man the giant ship. Most of them simply resumed their drinking while a large group gathered at the base of the front mast. These were The Seal’s chosen Wayfarers.
There wasn’t anything special about these particular men and women. Most pirates were wayfarers. Any pirate with an affinity for water or air, the two most common elements, were suitable wayfarers. Individually, they could barely affect the raw power of the sea and wind, but in large enough groups they could change the tides and bring favourable winds. Some could even create cyclones or whirlpools.
The wayfarers stood in a wide circle and held up their hands. Each had their own method for channeling their powers. Some waved their arms, others wiggled their fingers, and a few chanted words under their breath.
Bucc felt the wind change direction and the tides calmed. That was the one good thing about all of the battles that the other pirates found so fun. A good skirmish meant that repairs were needed, and repairs meant that Bucc could spend a few peaceful hours away from the lifeless planks of the floating village. He was eager to be back on land. Nothing was better than feeling the earth beneath his feet and embracing the smells of flowers and trees.
Knowing that his parents would start to question him about his exploits in the skirmish, Bucc quickly slipped away from the deck to make his way through the labyrinth of passageways within the hull. His cabin was too obvious a place to hide so instead he made his way down to the galley.
The cook was a round man called Grim Jimmy. His parents had envisioned him as a warlord, but it had quickly become apparent that his calling was cookery. He had a huge handlebar moustache that he usually wore pulled back and tied behind his neck, and had a giant tattoo of a chef’s hat across the top of his bald head. He offered Bucc a slight nod as he chopped potatoes. Bucc was a frequent visitor to the galley.
Seated beside the cook was the giant of a man known as Big Tim. He was prodding tentatively at a new eyepatch he was wearing. When Big Tim saw Bucc he smiled broadly and pointed at it proudly.
“Look what I’ve got.”
“Looking good,” Bucc said with false enthusiasm. Pirate skirmishes were more of an exciting game than a real battle. Serious injuries were rare, but any wound was a sign of honour. Peglegs, hooks, and eye patches were the ultimate status symbols. “How bad’s the damage?”
Big Tim’s face dropped slightly. “Not bad. Only a little splinter. The surgeon said it’ll be all better in a few weeks. I had to beg him just to give me this cool eyepatch.”
Bucc offered him a supportive thumbs up. “It suits you. Really adds to the whole intimidation thing you have going.” Big Tim grinned like a child at that and clapped his hands together excitedly, breaking the illusion.
Bucc watched the two men’s familiars as they scurried around the floor, playfully fighting over an apple. His eyes were only drawn away when the distinctive sound of footsteps became audible from the corridor outside. Bucc recognised their rhythm instantly.
“Noodle protect me, they’ve found me already. Quick! Tell me where to hide.”
“You’re on your own kid,” the cook said with a disinterested grunt.
Bucc didn’t have time to run. The door opened and his mum stepped into the galley.
“I thought I might find you here. Replenishing your energy after your first battle?”
“Err, yeah, sure. I’m totally doing that. I’m just so hungry after all that action.”
The cook eyed Bucc wearily then threw a banana over to him. Bucc tried to catch it and failed. It hit his head then fell to the floor.
His mum’s smile only made Bucc feel a sense of guilt and lurching dread. It was a good job that he had at least been born with a pirate’s innate ability to lie and tell tall tales. She ushered him out of the galley.
“Come on lad, your Pa and me want to hear all about your first skirmish.”
“Okay, Ma,” he sighed, all the while wondering if he could choke himself with the banana if it meant avoiding the eager looks of pride in his parent’s eyes.