It was plain sailing for several days aboard the small Ashenna ship. There was a tense moment where another Ashenna vessel appeared on the horizon, but it luckily didn’t get close enough to notice that the ship was stolen.
In that time, Milla showed no signs of waking up, but she wasn’t getting any worse either. During the first night, a single blank had floated down and settled on her chest. By the morning of the third day she had a dozen of the creatures nestled around her. The scene drew strange looks and questions from the rest of the crew but Bucc didn’t really have any answers to give.
It was on the fourth day they saw their first evidence of a battle. A skeletal mast jutted up from the sea like an accusing finger. Wooden planks floated in a wide area around them. They could see a wreck visible below.
“There was a big battle here,” Red Karla said as she examined the area. “All this debris is from multiple ships. I’d guess most went down straight to the seabed but this one settled on a rock.”
“How can you tell?” Bucc asked.
“Different sorts of wood. One ship might have a few types as it gets repaired by different islands, but by and large, each ship is mostly a single kind of timber with a single style of planks. Here we’ve got a dozen sorts of wood with all kinds of width and thickness. Ashenna ships are more boring and samey so it’s harder to tell.”
“We should ready up,” Bucc’s mum told them. “We’re close to the Isles of Frindor now. That’s where Lord Captain Steeledge is making his stand. Expect the Ashenna fleet to be nearby.”
Despite the warning, the hours passed without any sight of enemy ships, or friendly ones for that matter. What they did see was more and more debris, though increasingly it was the uniform birch wood of the northern ships that filled the water.
On the fifth day they were finally confronted by a small fleet of three ships. Their different shapes and sizes made it a safe assumption that they belonged to south sea pirates, but considering that Bucc and the others were sailing under the guise of the Ashenna, their safety wasn’t guaranteed. Bucc was made to wave a white sheet while the other pirates stood at the railings without their weapons.
The fleet didn’t slow. The ships at either side moved to flank while the larger ship continued towards them. Bucc was beginning to fear that it would plough straight into them. The sturdy, dark wood hull of the ship looked more than capable of shattering the small Ashenna craft.
It was almost on top of them before the ship finally came to a stop. A platform was lowered down from above, and on it were a dozen pirates. Their leader was a tall man in a vivid red coat and a wide brimmed hat with two slender swords at his waist. A metallic looking bird rested on his shoulder. He smiled at them and his teeth shone silver.
“Captain Steeledge!” Bucc’s mum greeted the man. “I am Saltia Jones, formally of the Singing Seal. We’ve come to offer you our swords.”
“Then you’ve come just in time,” the captain answered. His words were clear and sharp yet had a faint musical quality to them. “I think our Ashenna friends are growing tired of our resistance. We’ve been a bigger thorn in their side than they expected. That thought brings warmth to my heart like quality rum on a cold night. Come, we will guide you to port. I have no doubt that your blades will be of great help.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Bucc’s mum answered. “Do you have a surgeon aboard? We have an injured girl in need of attention.”
Captain Steeledge nodded. “I’ll send my man down to see to her.”
The captain and his men returned to their ship, and true to his word, a surgeon laden with a bulky work bag was lowered onto the Ashenna vessel. He was led to Milla while the rest of the crew directed the ship to follow in the larger craft’s wake.
By the time the Isles of Frindor came into view, the surgeon had worked his trade on Milla, patching up her shoulder, spreading ointment across her burns, then wrapping her up in bandages as best as he could around the girl’s symbiotic vines.
“To say it simply, the girl should be in a much worse state than she is. Her body is stronger than someone her age should be. I’m not sure how, but those blanks seem to be speeding up her natural recovery too. The flora that covers her appears to be drawing in energy from the sun as a backup fuel source too. She’s truly a remarkable specimen. I’d keep an eye on her. There’s many an inquisitive mind that would love nothing more than to experiment on her. All she needs is rest and she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”
With that weight off his mind, Bucc headed to the front of the ship as the cluster of tiny islands ahead became clearer. This was a place he had never been to before. The isles were further south than the Seal’s usual waters. They were a collection of emerald green jewels rising up from clear blue seas, each island a tropical paradise filled with palm trees and golden sanded beaches.
Dozens of ships were anchored around the isles, ranging from small boats to mighty floating villages further out to sea. Bucc had never seen so many ships in the same place before. If each one had a full crew then there were thousands of pirates gathered around the isles. He couldn’t imagine a fleet large enough to face off against such a force.
They wove their way through the scattered ships and anchored close to the centre isles. Bucc and the others boarded a boat and crossed over to the closest island just behind the captain’s own boat. The settlement they moored at was very small. There was no housing, only a large tavern and a series of market stalls that were looking barren. It was clear that the isles couldn’t support the amount of pirates that had gathered there.
Captain Steeledge spoke with a young boy who had appeared as soon as they had disembarked. The boy nodded and ran off. The captain led them up the beach and into the tavern. The building was packed to the rafters with roudy pirates. Familiars scampered around their feet and jumped from person to person playfully, The noise and smell was like a physical force that hit Bucc as they stepped inside.
A tight pathway opened up before the captain as every pirate sober enough to recognise him shuffled to the side and nodded their head respectfully. He made his way to the back of the tavern then climbed the stairs and entered a private room. Inside was a single large table with a map laid out on it. Wooden counters marked important spots on the map.
“Welcome to the war room,” Captain Steeledge said as he ushered them inside and closed the door behind them. “Let me catch you up on where things stand. I need everyone to be on the same page if I’m to make this resistance work.”
He pointed to a section of the map littered with markers. “This is the Isles of Frindor. As you can see, we have thirty six ships anchored here. That’s the most ships unified under a single banner since the Leviathan Conflict, or it would be if Captain Pyrefist hadn’t established himself an empire while we sat by in willful ignorance. Thankfully his forces are split between two battlefronts. He may have acted too soon and overextended himself. I want to punish him for that.”
“Over here about five leagues north is where the Ashenna southern fleet have made their base. Up until very recently they had been pushing us back at a steady pace. Our last count puts them at seventy ships. This is why we have set up in these islands. The narrow gaps between them limits the effectiveness of their numbers and they know it. If they made a single push they would likely win, but there’d be a large toll to do so.
“They are also missing their lord captain. Pyrefist is the main driving force of the Ashenna. While he’s busy in the north, this fleet is under the command of his daughter, a woman known to us only as ‘The Red Demon’. She’s a fearsome warrior but has never commanded a fleet of this size.”
“I imagine supplies here are running out quickly,” Bucc’s mum pointed out. “And the Ashenna aren’t likely to get bored and leave. So what do you want us to do?”
“Securing supplies is difficult for both forces. While the bulk of the Ashenna ships are positioned nearby to stop us from establishing supply routes, we had no way to stop them from doing the same. Not until a mysterious ship began to ambush their supply ships out in the open. The Ashenna began to send more ships to guard their supply routes, so we sent a handful of our own ships to aid this mysterious ally. As things stand, both us and the Ashenna are running dangerously low on food. That means they’ll launch an attack soon to break the deadlock.”
As he spoke he motioned to various pieces on the map to highlight his points. The Seal’s pirates leaned in closer to examine the fleets’ positions.
“But that just leaves us in the same place as before. We fight here and they win at a large cost. That isn’t exactly comforting,” Red Karla pointed out.
“True. That’s why I plan to split the fleet. Twenty ships can hold these isles for a few hours. That leaves sixteen ships to cause some chaos with. My orders will be sent out closer to the time to avoid information from leaking, but rest assured that the pirate way of life isn’t going to be destroyed without a fight.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Ah, that must be a crewman from your new ship. I knew just the vessel to assign you all to. Enter.”
The door opened and joy flooded Bucc’s heart. He smiled and stepped forward to hug the man that stood on the other side.
“Bucc! My boy! I was so worried about you when your Ma wrote that you still hadn’t been found. I’m so glad you’re here!”
Before he had finished speaking, Bucc’s mum joined in the embrace. Namiir, his father’s snake-like familiar, draped across the family’s shoulders, enclosing them together. They stayed like this for a few tender moments until a cough from the captain brought them back to the matter at hand.
“You are all now crewmates of The Lady Hope under Captain Ackeridge. Mister Jones the Elder will show you to your new ship. I’ll have your injured girl transported across so she can remain in your care.”
Bucc’s father took them out of the tavern and walked the group along the beach. He named the various ships visible around the isles until he finally pointed out a sleek vessel with blue sails that blended with the clear skies around it which he identified as their new station, The Lady Hope.
“It’s a newer ship,” he told them excitedly as they boarded one of the many rowboats that littered the isles. “They built it for speed but it still packs a fair amount of firepower. Not much like the Singing Seal. Everything is built to be lightweight and minimal. The Lady Hope was made to hunt down ships and sink them, nothing else. Under Captain Ackeridge’s command, it does that purpose very well.”
“I’ve not seen you this enthusiastic for a long time,” Bucc’s mum told him. “I take it you’re confident we can win?”
“Confident that we’ll win? No. Confident that we’ll have an epic battle that will go down in legend among fellow pirates? Most certainly!” he laughed. His wife mirrored his toothy grin. Bucc could only sigh at the display.
The situation still sounded pretty bleak to Bucc. By his understanding, this pirate stronghold was only alive because the Ashenna captain was holding back. If not for this mysterious ship disrupting their supply lines then the Isles of Frindor would already be flying the Ashenna colours.
“Does anybody know about this mystery ship?” he asked his father.
“Nobody knows much. It’s only a small vessel. The ship itself isn’t special in any way really. All the reports say is that whenever a lone Ashenna ship passes a riftway, this ship emerges, opens fire, then slips back through it before anyone can retaliate. The only detail of note is that the ship is commanded by a masked captain. Nobody has got close enough to see anything else.”
“Sounds like a good omen to me,” Red Karla stated. “Mysterious allies are always a good thing. We have a mix of crews and ships here from all across the south seas. The Ashenna are too rigid to outmatch our versatility.”
Red Karla’s words got Bucc thinking. Pirates from all over the oceans were collected here. Maybe his friends had made their way here too. He asked if Jesse and Adward had been seen. His father shook his head sadly.
“I’m afraid not. The seas have been a dangerous place lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ashenna got to them. If so, they’d have been pressed into service on one Ashenna ship, or maybe sent to be labourers on an island somewhere.”
That hadn’t been the answer that Bucc had wanted to hear. What if they were hurt, or captured? The thought stung Bucc’s heart. Adward and Jesse had been the ones to support him after Kaz’s death, the three of them had always been side by side. Without them, it was like Bucc was missing an important part of himself. Thinking about it now, Milla had filled that vacuum since the destruction of the Seal, but now that she was unconscious, there absence was hitting him hard.
He fell into a somber mood as the boat made its way over to The Lady Hope. They were lifted aboard, and as his father had said, the deck was simple and clean. An elderly lady who was even shorter than Bucc and walked with the help of a stick greeted them. Her white hair was worn in a perm and her body was cloaked in an intricate green coat. A tired looking grey cat slept peacefully on her shoulder. Unlike his mum’s feline familiar, the woman’s didn’t seem to have any distinctive features.
“Welcome aboard The Lady Hope. I am Lady Roseline Ackeridge, but you may all just call me Captain.”
Bucc didn’t recognise the name. For a captain of her age, he would have expected to have heard stories about her. If tales weren’t told of her exploits then she probably wasn’t a great captain.
“You don’t look too impressed, boy,” she snapped, startling Bucc. He put on a hasty smile.
“Sorry, Captain. I had something else on my mind.”
“Sure you did. You think I was born yesterday? You’re thinking ‘What has this old coot done to be a captain here in the war for the very survival of the pirate’s way of life? What does this little old lady without any reputation have to offer?’ Am I right?”
“Err, a less mean hearted thought might have crossed my mind. That’s to say I simply wondered why I hadn’t heard of somebody as, er, distinguished as yourself. Pirates don’t become captains unless they’re skilled after all.”
She smiled at him then smacked him in the knee with her walking stick. “Too right we don’t. And that gets harder the older you get because your strength and stamina start giving out on you. But it’s all good until your brain starts going. At that point you want to be fed to the fish, if we still had any. Bah, anyway, I’m unknown by choice. If your enemies underestimate you then you have the advantage, and at my age you take every advantage you can manage. So I play up these frailties. I can still more than hold my own against whippersnappers like you.”
“Understood, Captain!” Bucc answered hastily.
“Good. Mister Jones, show them to their quarters. Get yourselves familiar with the ship. We could be called upon at any minute so I want everybody to be ready. I expect a lot from my crew. I hope for your sake that you each live up to my high standards.”