Seasons’ greetings, and welcome to December on the Princelings website. This year we have a two part story for you, involving the pirates who kidnapped King Fred a couple of years back, when he solved their immediate problem by getting them their own castle, Castle Roc [Fred’s Yuletide Escape]. Since that story, it seems they’ve become good neighbours, even if they are a whole day’s sail from each other, at least.

Each part of the story is just over 2000 words, and the second part is next Wednesday, 14th Dec. The following Wednesday is the winter solstice, of course!

A Pirate Yule

Part One – Castle Roc

December in the Sleeve, the long stretch of turbulent sea which separates the island of the Realms from the great continental mass to the south and east.  High winds rushed along the coast from the west, whipping the waves into a frenzy.  Equally strong winds from the north scoured the air above the eastern sea, sweeping it into whirlpools and crashing it into sandbanks.  And where the north and west winds met, off the southeasternmost point of the Realms, a choppy maelstrom tossed flotsam, jetsam, and ships caught in the storm from wave crest to trough, despite the still airs above them.

“Hold fast!” yelled the captain at his crew. “We’ll be through it yet, like a cork out of a bottle.  And then I’ll crack open the rum for ye!”

Forty soaking, freezing, salt-rimed sailors heard his words and tried to grin, but the salt stung their lips, and they shut them again rather than expose the painful cracks to the cold.  Their grip on the gunnels, ropes and whatever else they’d managed to secure themselves to was held only by the ice encrusted on their hands.  Darkness came again, a mere six hours from the previous dawn, and the sailors gritted their teeth and thought of the alternatives to their way of life.

There weren’t many options for lifelong pirates.

***

Forty miles along the coast, safely around the headland from the Sleeve, sixty ex-pirates huddled in sandy caves set into the hillside, protected from both wind and wave by the sturdy walls of Castle Roc, set thirty feet above the high water line, but with a sheltered cove to berth their ships.  If it had not been the ideal place when they had agreed to move there, it was now.  They made a decent enough living from the sea, traded honestly with inlanders and visitors from the continent, and were even growing strange things called vegetables in the good soil in the valleys beyond the cliffs.

“How many days now till Yule, Archie?” asked one gruff-voiced fellow with a scar over one eye and a rough woollen cap perched over his ears.

“Two days, Bodger, two days.  One less than yes’day, when it was three days.” Archimedes was used to explaining how numbers worked to his mates.  He learned to count as a kid, as did at least six of the others, and fully twenty of them could do so now.  Far from being despised as larnin’, it was now viewed as an asset, since counting meant you could tell whether the water was too shallow, or if all the seeds had sprung up, or how many more days it was till the Yuletide feast.

“Wot we gonna do this yar?” A scrawny chap who looked like a kid, but was at least as old as the rest, stretched on his pile of hay and yawned.

“Cap’n told ye, t’other day. Weren’t ye list’ning, Dafydd?”

“Oh, arr, we wos list’ning a’right.  Jus’ wanna hear it agin, Archie.”

“Well, I’ll tell ye again, then.  First up, we have the Solstice speech, and then the feast.”

“Why’s the cap’n speechifying?”  Popster asked

“‘cos it’s trad-ish-unal.”  Dafydd showed that he knew perfectly well what was happening.

Archie rolled his eyes.  “Then there’s the storytelling day.”

“Narrathon,” Dafydd corrected him.  “But we ain’t gettin’ any proper narr-ators.”

“No, we’re doing it ourselves.  And if we want to sing the shanties we can, because that’s even more traditional.”

“Hold up! Cap’n on board!” A dark chap at the edge of their cave called, and they all rolled to their feet, murmuring ‘Cap’n’ in greeting as a tall chap slid through the entrance into the light.

“Men,” he said, looking around at them.  “There’s a ship in trouble out on the banks.  Maybe it’s holed, maybe it’ll swim, but it’s dark and we have to decide whether to save those on board or not.

Now if we save them, we may have to share our food with a full crew, or maybe only a few survivors, but that feast will be least feasty, if you take my meaning.  Shall we save them?”

A small chorus of ‘aye’ rippled around the cave, but the captain could tell it wasn’t all the men, by any means.

“That’s what I thought.  We might, but we might not.  We could set ourselves against the perils of the deep in the dark of the night, or we could wait till morning.”

“It’s not that deep, cap’n.  Tide’s goin’ out so we can walk to the bank in two hours.”

“Shut yer gob, Sparky.”

“No, Sparky’s right,” said the captain.  “In two hours the moon’ll be up and there’ll be enough light to wade across.  If we don’t go to them, I reckon any survivors will come to us, and if we go, we’ll be in charge, won’t we?”

“Aye!” came a stronger response.

“Right then.  Two hours, assemble on the beach, everyone except red watch – they’ll stay here to make sure anyone that’s already come ashore gets looked after.  Archie, tell them when two hours is up, will you?”

“Aye, cap’n.” Archie said, and watched his captain swagger away to address the men the other caves.

 

The rescue party were halfway to the sandbanks when they heard the sound of oars and muffled grunts.

“Ahoy, there,” called the captain.  “Be you the ship that ran aground?”

“Aye, that we be,” came an answer to the captain’s left.

“Can ye see the light we left on our harbour wall?”

“Aye, we’re making for it, thank’ee.”

“Are ye all safe in the boats?”

“Aye, that we be.”

The captain shrugged and called his men to make their way back to shore.  It might be profitable to search the grounded ship, but not in the dark, and not when the captain and crew were making for his castle.  He had a strange feeling about the voice he’d heard echoing over the water, still disturbed, but now just a gentle sploshing, not the choppy waves of earlier.

He and his men made land about the same time as the boats.  The rest of his men directed the newcomers to the fire to dry off, and the rescue party hurriedly changed into dry clothes to support them.  The captain reckoned the newcomers outnumbered his shore party, but not when all his crew banded together.  Old habits died hard; he wasn’t about to lose all they’d worked for to another band of pirates, since he knew by the look of them that was what they were.

He knew even better when he saw their leader, a tall muscular chap, mostly black with a few white scars about his person, and tufts of ginger around his ears and neck.

“Well, Ludo, I’m surprised to meet you here.”

“And who might you be?”

“Captain Argus, at your service once upon a time, but now we make a fairly honest living here at this castle, as you see.”

“Given up your petty pilfering ways have ye, Argus?”

Argus smiled broadly at him, showing his teeth were still as strong as ever.  “Given up your pilfering ways and hoping not to get found in the Realms, are ye, Ludo?”

“I have an invitation.”

“Oh, yes?  And who might be inviting the most double-dealing pirate king ever known to the high seas, banished after the rout of the Battle of Dimerie, and told never to set foot in the Realms again?”

“Got any trouble with bandits?” asked Ludo.

Captain Argus wondered at the change of subject.  “Not around here, no.  Why?”

“You will have soon.  I’ve been kept up to date about all the goings-on in the Realms.  Double-dealing by lords of their castles, occupation by vampires who set plague loose in the southern lands, people kicked out of their homes seeking shelter in their beholden castle only to be enslaved… heard any of that?”

Argus shifted uncomfortably.  “Aye, we hear rumours.  Get a few people coming by, hoping to find safety here.  Families move on when they realise, but some of the loners stay.”

“Losers, you mean.”

“Young males without a job, seeking companionship and purpose.  Just like the old days, really.”

Ludo had been walking beside Argus as they talked, and now they were some way from the fire.  Ludo looked towards the fire, and then back along the seawall to where the next sentry was, and beyond him to the ships.  The first glimmer of dawn was on the horizon.  It would be light enough to see faces inside another hour.  He stopped and looked out to sea.

“I’m headed north, to meet some people I know from old.  I need a ship and mine’s breached.”

“We’re two days off the spring tides.  Is she reparable?”

“Maybe.  If I take one of your ships and my men, you can have her whatever state she’s in, with all the booty aboard as well, save for a chest in my cabin.  Will you give me your word you’ll return that to me?”

Argus thought for a moment.  Ludo was notoriously tricksy.  On the other hand, he had known him to deal fair with other captains; it was the way he brought so many of them to support him.

“Are you starting a new campaign?”

“Maybe.  Want to join?”

“Depends on your purpose.  Like I said, we have a good berth here.  How far north are these people you used to know?”  Argus had some good friends a day or two away, and he didn’t think they were friends of Ludo’s.  In fact, he had reason to believe they were his sworn enemies.

“Oh, three or four days’ sailing, then a short walk.  They’re rebels, nobody you’d know, now you’re so comfortable in your wee landlubbers’ castle.”

Argus refused to rise to the bait.  Ludo was trouble, and he’d decided his own course after the battle of Dimerie.  It had been a hard won struggle to get recognition, a home for his men and others of their former calling, and the security of a castle.  He wasn’t going to tell Ludo the other benefits he was negotiating with princes and kings.

“If anyone asks, you’ll have to say you stole my ship, but yes, you can have one, and we’ll raise yours.  Deal.”

“Good.  We’ll be on our way at the next high tide, then.  The wind should be in our favour by then.”

There was a fair bit of murmuring as the newcomers took over one of the ships and put up one sail to work their way out of the little harbour.  Once they were clear and under full sail, Argus turned to his band.

“Men! I’m sure most of you know who’s in that ship, and you may have guessed why I sent them on their way.  We want nothing to do with them, but if we can raise their ship we’ll have got a decent exchange.  Now today is Solstice eve, and I reckon we should celebrate today, then raise the ship tomorrow, since it’ll be a long job.  What say you?”

“Aye!” came a chorus.

“Right then, well, I’d better speechify about finding ourselves here, in a safe haven, with good fishing and ships and friends in high places, and the Realms gradually coming round to thinking we’re just regular people, although we know we’re a bit better than them.”

Everyone laughed and Argus continued.

“Now, I want to see our friends at Castle Marsh, and tell them about Ludo and his visit further north.  I want a small crew to come with me after the feast, straight after, so no drinking yourselves silly.  The rest of you can carouse as much as you like.  Sing shanties, play games, have a great day.  But raise that ship during the next three tidefalls, and you can have the pick of the contents.  Those that come with me will get a second feast at Castle Marsh!”

Cheers came from all quarters; it was a plan, and they liked plans.  Argus knew who he could trust to carry them out, too. While the feast was being readied he went to all the section leaders, picked his crew out, and saw that everything was shipshape while he was away.

They’d miss having stories and all the other goodies that went with Yuletide, but they’d surely make up for it when they met King Fred and told him the news.  Ludo, formerly the pirate king, and one-time king of Castle Marsh, was back.

Watch for Part two next week!

© J M Pett 2016

Yuletide 2016 – A Pirate Yule part One
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