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RED MARY, A Short Story


A SPELLS AND SPACESHIPS, PIRATE WEEK COLLABORATION!


This week has been PIRATE WEEK! Back in the summer Alex, at Spells and Spaceships blog challenged me to write a short story for his Pirate Week event. He then set out a series of polls on Twitter, leading to me being given a number of winning items and places.


Please visit his site for more details of the poll, and the rest of pirate week. There are amazing posts by incredible authors and by Alex himself as part of this week!


But what about the story? Well, it had to star; Red Mary, a pirate ghost ship, a magical cutlass, in winter and last but by no means least, a sea serpent.


From myself and Alex, please, enjoy our Pirate Week gift to you.


 

RED MARY

‘If you stop stabbing that cursed thing in my neck, I’ll swim smoothly and you might find it easier to stay aboard.’

Mary floated in ice-spangled water, red hair drifting around her shoulders like coastal seaweed and her eyes, blue as the icebergs surrounding us, pierced me. She was ice to the core, calm in the face of my frustrations.

And, she was off my back at last – I could swim away, rub myself along the nearest iceberg, release that stupid cutlass from my scales and free myself from her hold.

Except … we wanted the same thing. Truthfully, I could have got rid of her days ago. She’d have made less than a mouthful, and was a little too bony for my taste, but any food was good in the winter. However, this fool pirate wanted – no needed – a ship, and I needed to be rid of one.

When mutiny sets you down on an iceberg in the cold north, in the middle of winter, they don’t expect you to survive.

Mary was going to, I ‘d see to that, and she was going to take that damned ship and its heinous crew with her. All it would take was a little help from me, enough for her to take over – to sail The Rosella away. Once she was in someone else’s waters, the ship and its new captain were no longer my problem.

‘If you’d just behave like a good sea serpent and take me where I want to go, I’d not have to stab you with a magical cutlass to get you to follow my instructions.’

That cutlass had already got her in trouble once. I’d have bet my scales its persuasive powers had triggered the mutiny. All it took was one person – or not-person – who could resist it, and splash your reign was over…

I couldn’t make it look as though I was too keen, too happy to take her there. Magical cutlass. Ha! It might give her the power of command over humans, and I hoped their less-than-alive remains, but it didn’t do a thing to me.

Except irritate me. It appeared to be working simply because I let her believe it. I hissed and writhed as she swam alongside, fighting as she clambered aboard. I threw myself around in the water – but never quite enough to dislodge her.

‘Owww.’ I howled as she stabbed the cursed cutlass deeper. I added a bit of a tremor. My mother would be proud.

‘Onward, to my new ship. I want to be aboard before nightfall.’

Before nightfall? In winter? I bit back a reply referring to eel gonads and swam onward. We weren’t finding The Rosella before sundown, and it wouldn’t be possible – or desirable – to take it in the night. Mary needed to board as the sun rose then she’d have an hour, at the most. She’d join the crew or lead them by sundown. If any of the current crew had flesh to their bones, I might help her too.

 

The sun was well and truly setting with no sign of The Rosella. I slithered my huge body alongside snow-capped rocks peeking from the coastal ice.

‘Go and dig a hole, stay out of the wind and stay warm. We’ll be there with first light, and you need to be ready.’ I turned my head to watch her getting off.

She raised an eyebrow. ’I think you might be starting to like me.’ She stabbed a little harder. ‘That or you’re planning to get rid of me. I’ll stay right here, while you keep swimming.’

So swim I did. Away from The Rosella, and through towering channels of ice. Along narrow passageways where a fell wind blew and flurries of snow blinded my vision. Without Mary, I’d have taken refuge beneath the waves. Instead, I kept her alive for one more night.

 

Ice glowed as the sun peeked over the edge of our white and blue world. During the night, I ‘d felt Mary fall asleep and floated in a shallow inlet while she rested. As the tell-tale signs of morning intensified, I quietly returned to the ocean and shook a little as a fogbow welcomed the new dawn.

Mary awoke. ‘How long, serpent?’

‘Very soon. Prepare yourself,’ I replied. The normal noises of the ocean – whale song and the clicks and calls of the more coastal creatures – faded away. The area ahead of us devoured all traces of it.

 

Those of us who lived in the North avoided the silence. It cloaked The Rosella like the funeral shroud of bubbles wreathing a dead serpent, before we popped them, to allow the body to sink to the ocean floor – to become part of the great chains of life.

But that was the thing, The Rosella was outside these chains.

‘Prepare yourself. We are almost upon it.’

Mary shifted around as she tightened the straps on her arm plates and heavy gloves. I guessed both were a barrier to avoid the pull of her own cutlass. A glowing blue vial of something hung around her neck and her tender, squishy parts were well wrapped in leather. It didn’t look the most protective of armour sets I’d ever seen on a human, but then Mary was not most pirates.

She’d pushed her last crew too hard, and they’d found a way to get rid of her. Once she had this crew under her control, they’d be loyal to the end… of time.

The sky grew dark, and our world changed to a pallette of grey. The wind rose, blowing wave-crest foam into my face and scattering spray through the air.

Lightning crackled down to caress the sea, with unworldly silence as The Rosella devoured the thunder.

A rocky reef emerged as we reached the edge of the sea ice, returning close to land, to The Rosellas eternal harbour. Towering rocks marked a narrow entrance and I swam through them to find the ship bearing down on us in the distance.

Ragged sails filled as though full sheets graced the rotten limbs of her mast, and the hollow eyes of the giant’s skull mounted on her prow faced me. Silently, oars propelled her through the water.

‘She’s perfect.’ Mary stood on my back. ‘Bring me alongside.’

I could barely hear her before the giant skull sucked the words in. My belly scraped the rocks as the current pushed me against them. I thrashed my tail furiously, working hard against the wind and tide to draw alongside, before rearing up to bring Mary level with the deck. She leapt off, her red hair a flash of life in the dead, grey world.

With the infernal itch between my spines relieved, I set about aiding her death wish.

The crew moved slowly, ambling toward us. Those with flesh on their bones able to move with slightly more speed than those dragging half-joined limbs behind knee-stumps.

Mary was a storm unleashed. She sliced her way through the first undead to arrive. She leapt upward, heading for the huge wheel, where a single figure stood unmoving.

His head turned her way. A black hat devoid of markings turned with it and his black cape, tattered and torn, flew behind him as the ship headed for the gap in the rocks.

An ambling undead started to pursue Mary. It was within my reach, so I reared over the rail, and bit it in half. The captain’s head turned in my direction now. He raised his arm, and a hatch on the deck opened. More crew poured out. A stinking, decaying wave of bitter flesh, dripping with rot. They split like a shoal of hunted fish, one stream directed toward Mary, the other to myself.

I could have just sunk beneath the waves and left her to her fate, but then The Rosella would mar our seas until someone else living took the helm. Someone who had enough awareness of the true sea conditions was needed to take it out of the cove through another route.

Every day, for the past few years, The Rosella had made a bid for freedom – the same way she had arrived, the same way she had been wrecked and sunk. Her crew sailed at dawn, trapped in their eternal course of despair – to crash into the rocks day after day, entirely unaware of the many freshly opened exits in the sea ice to the south of the harbour. I’d tried to kill them before, but they came back with the sunrise. Without Mary, or someone else to steer them free, here the ship would remain.

There had always been good fish, great hunting in this cove before. The bears and the seals, fat from the summer, would rest here. I wanted it back.

 

Mary and her cutlass were as one now. I couldn’t be sure where she ended and it began. As the metal tentacle of the handle wrapped itself around her arm, preparing for the next strike, I wondered whether she or the cutlass was leading the charge. She ignored those coming from behind, her feet light with youth as she ran for the captain.

My attention was drawn back to my own survival by a rude thunk on my snout by a club. I bit down on the first attacker, flung another over the bars, careful not to damage the vessel. It needed to remain seaworthy to escape. I was certain that was the only way.

I lifted my tail from the water and swatted a shambling attacker readying a missile for Mary. She’d reached the wheel now and the captain. He left one hand on the great wheel as The Rosella sailed to her inevitable fate and the other drew a cutlass of his own.

I threw more of my own assailants overboard as the ship plowed the waves.

Mary attacked. The captain parried. She feinted right, and he replied with a swing toward her leg. Mary jumped back, just out of his reach. Her eyes narrowed as she readied to pounce.

‘The rocks!’ I called, but the giant skull ate my words. They were going to crash long before the fight for captaincy would end.

I slipped from the side to survey the situation. With no rowers it was just the wind driving the vessel onward. If I could just loose a sail or two … The web of ropes reaching to the deck left me no easy solution. Which should I break? A small figure, less damaged than many others, peered over the side at me with curiosity.

‘Loose the sails so Red Mary wins, and live till tomorrow. Let them stay filled, and die again tonight,’ I hissed in his ears.

He retained enough facial muscles for his single eye to look surprised. Then he turned and slowly looked up at the wheel. Within moments The Rosella began to lose speed as he scurried around the deck, then with one last glance up at Mary, he vanished into a cabin.

The silence of the cutlasses collisions, the flashes of lightning and the speed at which Mary attacked made her look otherworldly – almost magical.

With a final blow, she stabbed the captain of The Rosella through the chest, pinning him to his own wheel. He fell as she withdrew it, collapsing at her feet.

Mary stood astride his corpse as she turned the wheel, to remove them from fate’s grasp. The crew remained frozen in place as she called them to task. Her voice never left her mouth as her lips moved soundlessly.

They drew closer and closer to the rocks. I dived under the ship to surface on the far side, not wishing to be crushed beneath its weight. If they crashed today, would Mary rise as the captain tomorrow? Or would she die?

I threw my weight over the side, snapping and hissing at the crew, to try and break their immobility. Most of them just stood still, watching Mary. The small child crept out again, drawing close to me.

‘Did she win?’ he asked? ‘Did my sister win?’

‘Yes. Get the crew working and the sails raised, or she will die as you hit the rocks.’

He stepped away from me and ran up the steps to the wheel, flinging his half rotting form at Mary. She planted a kiss on his head and wrapped an arm around him, as urgent whispers were exchanged.

He ran down the steps and started to pull ropes, as she bent to retrieve the hat and cape from the corpse at her feet. As soon as the hat rested on her head, gold threaded patterns appeared on the corners, and the cape did the same as The Rosella accepted her as captain. The crew saluted as one, and The Rosella began to turn away from her demise. With the remaining undead now loyal and on task, I slipped back into the waves.

Red Mary, with her corpse brother at her side sailed The Rosella through the southern ice passage. I watched them go, following from a distance until the sun set and they remained sailing onward, into a new future.

 

Every now and again, many years later, news rides the waves of a pirate ship, that slips in and out of ports in darkness, that no one ever hears. Of vessels that simply vanish. I hear her crew are a mix, with more living aboard these days. I suspect that at least one small member of the undead will remain aboard as long as Mary does.


 


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