India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #1

Evening all. I am still waiting with infinite impatience to hear back from more agents I have sent samples of WULF to.  I was kind of committed to those characters, so did quite a lot of writing ideas and bits and bobs down for the sequel, SLADE. And sequels after that sequel. But if WULF won’t be accepted, then I should probably put SLADE on the backburner (at least until the point I give up, and put WULF online). Also, sorry for all the capitalised titles. That’s just how I envisage them. Carved in stone. Or maybe just a strange man shouting them at you.

So here is an idea I started ages ago, then gave up on because I wanted to write darker stuff. It’s more for a YA audience, but who knows how it’ll end up, as I often accidentally find my characters swearing, just because that’s how they talk.

It’s called India Bones and the Ship of the Dead and for the life of me can’t remember if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before. It’s the first in a proposed series (stampede before you walk), starting with the protaganist aged 12, like Harry Potter. But with pirates. Not regular pirates though. This is a fantasy world, full of things you think you know but don’t, not like this, and things you don’t know about at all.

Anyway, here’s the first bit. First draft, as usual. Still working out in my head the main character and how he talks. Hope you enjoy.

 

INDIA BONES AND THE SHIP OF THE DEAD

By Set Sytes

 

 

ONE

 

 

‘I can’t sir.’

‘Can’t what, lad?’

‘Can’t drink any more.’

‘Nonsense m’boy! Why, why there’s half the bottle left!’

‘I’m fogged sir. More than that. I’m near half steamed.’

‘And, and boy?’

India coughed wetly and leaned forward. Mr Bassard gave him the bottle and India unsteadily poured another splash of grog into his cup.

‘Aye’, India said, raising the cup and sipping the burn.

‘Good lad.’ Mr Bassard took a deep draught and harrumphed. His big, bushy face was beetroot red and he stomped his boots on the wooden floor. He shook his head fiercely and made an indistinguishable animal noise.

India sipped again and watched as Mr Bassard’s head leaned slowly back, and his eyes drifted closed. Within moments the rumbling of a hog echoed through the shack.

India put down his cup and stood up, and it took a moment to convince himself that he wasn’t on a ship at sea. The floor bucked at him and he moved towards the door as if bobbing on waves.

He outstretched his arm and pushed forward, misjudging the step and sprawling through the entrance onto shadowed sand and a violet, glittering night.

He turned on to his back and crossed his boots before him, the buckles catching the light of the stars and the fireflies carousing in the wind.

‘Aye,’ he said again, and grinned in a very relaxed, muzzy way. Above his head he watched a great cloud sail, lit up by a full moon. He fancied that it looked like a great galleon, and within its misty embrace brawled a crew of pirates and corsairs.

‘A ship in the sky,’ Mrs Wayles would have said. ‘Well of all the things.’

India heard cavorting up ahead, coming along whatever passed for streets in the port town. He ignored them, taking them for its usual night revellers. With great effort he put his hands behind his head, and reminded himself once again that he was missing a hat.

He listened to the gentle lap of waves on shore and closed his eyes to the stars. He imagined himself on that pirate ship, no longer water in the air but wood in the water. Something powerful and brooding, full of joy and adventure and the freedom of rogues.

‘Boy!’ He heard a shout as if it was right by his ears, and he jerked himself up.

‘Aye?’ he said, eyeing the band of coves standing in the sand before him.

One stepped forward, a thin man with a beard to his waist. ‘You drunk lad?’

India waved his hand in the air.

‘How old are you?’

India hiccupped. ‘Thirteen.’

‘Thirteen, by God! It’s that Mr Bassard again, ain’t he damn near set on corrupting all who get by him.’

‘It’s not corrupting,’ said India. ‘It’s warm and fuzzy’.

The man muttered to his fellows and then stepped forward and tried to pull India up. India shook him off, and said he could stand on his own, which he did so, a little clumsily.

‘What’s your name lad?’

India sighed and wondered if the day would come when he could be called Captain, and not boy or lad. ‘The name’s India Bones. If it pleases you,’ he added, with more than an ounce of sarcasm.

‘Bones?’ The man’s eye furrowed. One of the others, a fool in striped pantaloons, whispered something in his ear. ‘Oh, aye,’ the man said. ‘It’s you. Mrs Wayles’s boy.’

‘I suppose.’

‘The orphan,’ said the fool.

India narrowed his eyes. ‘No. My father ain’t dead.’

‘Where is he?’

India didn’t say anything.

The thin man with the long beard put his hands on his hips impatiently. ‘Well, come on with us. You don’t want to miss this.’

‘What is it?’

‘Where have you been lad? It’s the dance of the dead.’

‘Oh.’ India’s fog seemed to clear somewhat and his eyes brightened. ‘All right, I’m coming. Where is it?’

‘It’ll be yonder, by the docks as always.’ The man shifted his pointed finger. ‘You see the blackness of the horizon?’

‘I sure do. It’s night.’

‘The boy’s got lip. Look, that ain’t no natural darkness. See how it seems to pull the waves in. Like some black hole of a line stretching out – but not all the way. See how it stops after a while, on both its sides?’

India nodded. Now he looked, he saw that there was a stripe of utter blackness that sucked in the sky and waters around it. But it was not the horizon, for it occupied only part of it, and beyond its reach was a dark, dark blue.

‘That’s the coming of them,’ the man said. ‘Once every ten years. You won’t remember them last, you’d of been just a babe. The Ship of the Dead. All the way from God-knows-where to Eyeless, Mexico Island, right to our golden doorstep.’ He had a wistful look in his eye, and added, ‘They come to dance.’

 

*

 

India stood looking out the windows of the Merchant Hall. It was a large, swarthy building, the hub of the port, where all the commonfolk and nobles alike came to trade, dally and gossip. He was clustered on all sides by others, all craning their necks at the windows that looked out on the docks. There was a hubbub of excitable chatter, punctuated with words like ‘bones’ and ‘skeletons’.

‘Don’t be scared lad,’ said a tall, white-whiskered gentleman at his shoulder, leaning down to speak in his ear.

India flinched as the man’s breath blew into him. ‘I ain’t scared sir,’ he said.

‘No?’ said the man. ‘I would be. Only a fool is fearless.’

India paused to take this in. He looked out at the sea shining black and smoky. It looked like the clouds had sunk down from the heavens and were writhing on a rolling expanse of tar. The truth was that he was afraid. He didn’t know what to expect, and everyone seemed tense and nervous and all the rushed talk around him made it hard to stay focused. It was always easy to get carried away in crowds. He wondered what each person’s individual reactions to the event would be if they weren’t letting their emotions be used as a mere component of a noisy, irrational mass.

Still, this event was irrational. He had led a fairly ordinary life, for an unholy rascal, as some had dubbed him. Wandering, idle mischiefs, odd jobs and courier work (he called them ‘missions’) for petty gold to squander or lose, some light thievery perhaps (but only when he was hungry, or when it was plain irresistible). The port towns of Eyeless and Maiden, the shanty sprawl of Rug, even the capital of Mohawk, he figured he’d seen enough to say he’d seen it all. The island had never seemed big enough for him. At aged thirteen he already felt he knew it inside and out, and it bored him. But then there was this – this once a decade wonder of the supernatural. Yes, he was afraid, but more than that he was tense with anticipation. He couldn’t wait to see them.

The smoking black line rolled forward, taking over the sea and the sky in its approach. Fog stole onto the shore, and soon most of the beach was invisible. And out of the fog there came a long, slow, horn, and as it cut short there came the unmistakeable creaking of ship masts.

The mist rolled back, as though someone were sweeping it away with a broom. The blackness dissipated, and the beach lay clear and dark gold before them. Anchored in the bay was a grey and white ship, and pulling up to the shoreline were three boats full of the dead.

India barely heard the intake of gasps around him. The older folk, who had seen it once or more before, kept a reverent silence. India himself was struck dumb. His usually indolent eyes were as wide as he’d ever had them, and he dared not blink for fear that the whole scene would evaporate as a dream does upon waking.

The Ship of the Dead! Real magic!

The Merchant Hall was a house of statues as every man, woman and child in there watched the dead leave their boats and crowd together on the beach. They were no corpses, no rotting figures, but bare skeletons all, clothed in pirate and sailor dress. They dumped crates from the boats and pulled out bottles, handing them round. One of them started a fire – India couldn’t see how, but it rose up quickly, with an ice blue flame.

Instruments were brought forth, a fiddle, a guitar and a drum, and the music began. Ethereal lines from the violin, mournful and haunting at first, and then imperial with the pound of the drum: a death march. Then the guitar strummed, and the fiddler and the drummer and the rest were all grins, and the music shifted to one of enchanting, excitable delight.

They began to dance.

 

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