Bucc sat at the edge of their shelter feeling useless. Jesse was furiously attempting to light a fire while Adward was preparing a meal from what few nuts, berries and bulbs they had found nearby that didn’t look poisonous. Most of the island was covered in sickly green mushrooms that Bucc advised them were deadly. The mysterious girl was laid out in the centre of the space wrapped in a layer of leaves to try and keep her warm. The blanks rested on top of the leaves like giant bubbles, though Bucc wasn’t sure if they provided any heat.
None of them had much knowledge of medicine or health. It wasn’t something that interested most pirates. If plenty of rum and a hot knife didn’t solve the problem then that was that. The best they could offer was to keep her dry and try to keep her hydrated. The torrential rain at least went some way to helping with everyone’s thirst, but the food situation was still looking bad.
“She looks badly beaten, but I’d guess it’s exhaustion that hit her hardest,” Adward had announced after a tentative examination. Jesse had checked the girl over more closely but confirmed that she didn’t have any major injuries. Even so, she showed no sign of waking.
Adward handed Bucc a folded leaf then passed another to Jesse before reaching out into the rain to grab some cups that he had built from more leaves and fibres. Bucc sniffed the folded leaf then risked taking a small bite. The leaf was rubbery and tasteless, but inside was a thick paste of berries and nuts. It was bitter but Bucc didn’t care. He scoffed the rest of it down ravenously.
The rain didn’t ease up through the night. Water pooled on the ground and flowed into the shelter until there wasn’t a spot of dry floor left. At first Jesse had tried to use her affinity to keep the water at bay, but it had been a continuous battle, and in the end she’d no choice but to give up. A pile of leaves was the only protection they had to work with and it did little to keep the group dry. Exhaustion fought with discomfort, ensuring that Bucc stayed in a constant state of half sleep.
With the first light of morning came a break in the weather. A fine drizzle hung in the air, but compared to the downpour of the night it seemed almost pleasant. Bucc had barely slept and his hunger had returned. Even the sights, sounds and scents of nature were doing little to improve his bad mood.
“We need to explore the island better today,” Jesse said. She looked down at the mystery girl and her words faltered. She turned away and continued. “We need a boat, or at least a reliable source of food and a shelter that isn’t going to let so much water and cold in.”
“Do you think she’ll be safe here by herself?” Bucc asked, motioning towards the girl.
“She should be okay. Her condition looks stable. Anyway, those blanks seem really drawn to her. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think they’re watching over her. Protecting her,” Adward answered.
With that decided, the group set off. The jungle was dense and thick mud clung to everything. The strange mushrooms covered every surface and the air was thick with humidity and the sickly sweet smell of rot. There didn’t appear to be any sign of humanity at all.
It was hard to keep track of which direction they were going and where they had been. Eventually they made their way back to the beach and decided to do a circuit of the island. At first there were no discernable landmarks until Jesse spotted something that none of them had expected.
“Hey, is that a boat?” she asked. She slowed her walk and squinted. “It is! It’s a boat!”
“Keep your voice down,” Adward snapped. “Let’s see what’s going on before you make a scene.”
There was a trail leading out of the sea up the beach that ended at a rowing boat. The churned sand looked recent and the boat seemed well maintained. It couldn’t have been there for long. That meant only one thing. They weren’t alone.
Eyes darting in every direction, the friends ran back into the jungle to find cover. In the relative safety of the trees and bushes, they crept along in search of the other pirates. Not far from where they found the boat they saw smoke and followed it to a campfire beside a sturdy tent. Two men sat next to the fire warming their hands. Both were armed with swords and pistols.
“What do we do?” Bucc whispered. “You think they’ll give us a ride off this island?”
“I don’t know,” Adward said. “I’m not even sure which crews sail this area. Some pirates would go out of their way to help us, others would rob the clothes from our backs then bury us in a shallow grave.”
The men wore more clothes than most of the pirates that Bucc had ever met. Other than their faces they had no exposed skin, and small sections of metal armour covered the padded fabric of their jackets. Their swords were bigger and straighter than a traditional pirate scimitar too. They looked well equipped for colder weather and for brutal combat.
“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Bucc said quietly. “You two stay here. Talking to people is about the only thing I’m any good at. So I’ll go introduce myself and see if they’ll help us.”
“Or we could just watch them and see why they’re here. If they start talking about anything bad then we can run and hide, if they sound okay then you can work your charm,” Adward argued. “It’s not like we can jump in and fight them off if things turn nasty.”
“Shhhh. They’re talking,” Jesse hushed them.
The three leaned in closer to catch the words. It was hard to hear the men over the constant rhythm of rain but thankfully the men weren’t trying to be quiet. Their speech was thick but lacked the characteristic accent that was common in the South.
“Just think of the money. What’s a little rain when we’re rolling in gold?”
“Is she really worth that much though? She’s just a girl. I’ve got no Idea why the Lord Captain wants her back so badly.”
“Nobody knows what’s going on in that head of his, but he built the Empire, so he clearly knows what he’s doing. Besides, it was the Red Demon herself who gave us these orders, so it must be important. The reward will make us rich men. But first we need to find her. This is the only island for miles. If she isn’t here then she’ll be adrift in the sea. She wants to hope we find her or she’ll die alone inside that barrel.”
“They must be talking about that girl,” Bucc said.
“Well, I doubt they’re talking about another girl in a barrel,” Jesse said sarcastically. “Not unless these northern crews have a real funny idea about how to transport women.”
“But they don’t want to find her because they care about her. They just want to sell her. They beat and starved her. We have to help.”
“But what can we do? We have nowhere to hide and no weapons to fight them off. Not that you would fight them anyway,” Adward pointed out.
“There has to be something!”
“It’s simple,” said Jesse. “There’s an obvious trail where we dragged the barrel. We carry the girl and wait for them to find it. Then when they are busy with the barrel we steal their boat and make our escape.”
“Why do all your plans revolve around stealing things,” Adward said with a sigh.
“Just be glad I don’t have any gunpowder. The plan would have been much more fun then.”
They slowly backed away from the pirate’s camp then dashed through the undergrowth back towards where they had left the girl. Bucc ran between trees then slammed into a dark shape that had appeared in his path without warning. He looked up to see a third pirate smiling down at him. Jesse and Adward froze in place, unsure whether to run or jump to Bucc’s aid.
“Now what have we got here. This ain’t no place for children,” said the man. His voice was deep and had a wicked edge to it. Tattoos covered his face and his teeth were sharpened into points. He whistled, the sound echoing loudly through the jungle.
A spike of fear stabbed at Bucc but he shoved it away and thought quickly. “No kidding. We’re starving and soaked. We got washed away and ended up stranded here. Could you help us?”
“Oh, you did? Well then, I guess we’d better drop everything to help you little urchins out then, eh?”
The man’s tone was mocking but Bucc decided to play the fool. “I’m glad. We were worried that nobody would ever find us here.”
“Listen, kid, don’t play dumb with me.” He grabbed Bucc by the shirt and pulled him up level with his face. “You have the clothes and accent of the southern pirates. You’re a long way from your own waters. What’s more, I’ve got eyes and ears everywhere, and those ears tell me that you know where our mark is.”
“Mark? Can’t say I’ve seen anyone called Mark. Are you sure you haven’t got the wrong group?”
As he spoke, Bucc saw movement beside his foot. He glanced down to see a long snake slither past him then begin to wind its way up the man’s body. The pirate didn’t take his eyes off Bucc.
“You see, boy, this is my familiar, Sentinel. I can see and hear whatever she does. I know you know where the girl is. You’re going to save us a few minutes of searching and take us straight to her. That is, if you don’t want you and your friends to get hurt.”
There was the sound of footsteps behind him now. Bucc could still see Adward and Jesse frozen in place. The two other pirates moved toward the siblings.