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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #5

Following on from Part 4.

 

THREE

 

 

Over the next few days India got to know the crew fairly well. At first many of them had avoided him, and he’d seen the wariness in others’ eyes when he talked to them. A few were grouchy, and one skeleton by the name of Liver told him to shank off as soon as he approached. But a few were nice, like Big Cage who was as friendly as he was big, or Hairless, who helped him through finding his sea-legs and found him a nautical coat in the hold that was only a little oversized. Spares was always amusing company, especially when he was drunk. Sockets was a bit odd, but India got used to him. And Dessica, another female jolly roger (how they usually seemed to refer to themselves), had spoken to him at length on the movements of whales, the names of all the sails and masts, and even shown him how to tie different kinds of knot. And as the days passed, and India made himself known, rarely staying put for more than the length of a conversation, and helping out when he could, those who avoided him showed their faces, and those who were grouchy softened. It was only Liver who remained unpleasant more often than not, and India had barely exchanged more than a handful of words with Blackbone. Blackbone usually stayed in his cabin, anyway (the only one bar India with his own private cabin), and when they passed each other India would walk fast, for his near-silent presence sent a chill down India’s spine.

It was Grimmer though, who was the surest tether between India and his sanity. From the first day he’d been good to India, helped him help himself and help others whenever he was around, showed him all the parts of the ship, the hold and the forecastle, the gallery and the gun deck where cannons were cobwebbed from disuse. He even took India up to the crow’s nest – thankfully India had always been a good tree climber, but climbing the rigging up so high, and looking down at the long fall to the decks below – well, at least Grimmer had been there for encouragement, and India sure wasn’t going to let himself appear weak in front of a bunch of skeletons. The final few feet had been the worst, but at last he’d toppled into the crow’s nest, breathing hard with the adrenaline, and then spent a good three or four hours reddening with the sun and feeling on top of the world, almost drunk with the sight around him, perched on a swaying wooden spire that rose up like a needle out of the great, eternal ocean. A lonely minaret in a blue desert where he was king.

Eventually though, the seasickness had come on even stronger, not to mention a light-headedness close to fainting, and he’d forced himself to descend. He’d spent a while recovering, and decided to go up there again only rarely.

On the early evening of the fourth day India saw a far-off shape; he borrowed a spyglass off Sockets and saw a red-boarded ship travelling in the other direction. He squinted but in the darkening light couldn’t make out the crew.

‘Are they pirates?’ he asked, feeling excited.

Sockets snatched the spyglass back and looked through. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Merchant ship, probably from East Indigo.’

‘Can they see us?’

Grimmer came up behind him and gripped the rail. ‘Honestly, we don’t rightly know,’ he said. ‘There was another ship yesterday, too. Truth is a number of us don’t care to look anymore, or at least we don’t shout about it if we do see something. We’ve never been boarded, we’ve never even been hailed. We don’t know if it’s just mist they see, or the illusion of a ship of no consequence or interest to anyone, or if they see nothing at all but empty sea. Or maybe they see us just as we are, but then something in them just wipes it from their minds, tells them just to pass on by. A thought that never gets to go anywhere, like it’s been chased off. All we know is the Ship of the Dead ain’t disturbed, and never has been. We’re a ghost on the ocean, mate.’

On the fifth day Grimmer came to him carrying a cutlass, with the golden hilt of another held in the thick sashes that tied around his pelvis. He flipped the sword in his hand deftly and offered it to India hilt first. ‘Here you go mate,’ he said. A few of the others on the deck gathered round, interested.

A one-armed skeleton named Cold Shoulder put his one remaining hand up. ‘Here, he’s a bit young ain’t he?’

Grimmer didn’t turn. ‘He’s got to be able to defend himself, doesn’t he?’

India looked at the blade, at its edge and its wicked point. It caught the light and flashed meanly. ‘I’ll manage without. For now,’ he said.

‘You sure?’ Grimmer said.

‘For now.’

Grimmer shrugged and tossed the sword back on the deck with a clatter. India turned away, but not before stealing one, two more glances at it lying there on the grey wood at his feet.

India remembered when he had last used a blade. He’d grown up fighting with sticks with other kids in the streets and slums of Rug and Mohawk. The orphan gang that called themselves Ratboys infested the alleyways of the poor side of Mohawk, and India had once been well acquainted with them, often fighting with and against them in confrontations ranging from friendly scuffles and stick fencing to scrapping tooth and nail. It was about the time that an increase in girls in the gang led to arguments about a change of name that Skiv became leader. He was a bad-tempered kid, bigger than India and prone to using his fists to get his own way.

Always eager for something greater than pickpocketing, something more dangerous and more impressive, it was India who had come up with the idea of raiding Jack Rush’s house.

Jack Rush was a mean, surly merchant, and he had beaten India severely when he’d caught his pockets being picked just outside his home. India hadn’t been able to walk properly for days, and the bruises had taken much longer to disappear. In the years past he sometimes looked at his reflection in the coastal Mexican seawaters and figured that his face had lost its childishness, had been beaten tougher and rougher and stripped of some measure of innocence.

In retaliation India had come up with the plan, and roped the Ratboys in on it. He’d always been an outsider to them, some days seemingly on their side, some days not. He’d never wanted to answer to somebody else, and certainly not a dumb brutish boy like Skiv.

They entered the house as the moon hung full and watching, breaking the windows and dropping like cats over the sills. The children in the streets knew everything there was worth knowing. They knew that Rush was on an overseas business trip, selling sugar to East Indigo, and would not be back for some time.

They took everything, greedily filling their pockets and pouches with jewellery and silverware and bottles of rum. India had found a necklace. Black stringed, with a pendant of tarnished silver melded to what looked like bone, gold in the very centre and frayed around the edges, like the rays of a moribund sun. He pocketed it. He pocketed something else, too.

He didn’t know who’d started the fire. Somebody knocked over something, playing around with torches and bottles of rum; it could have been anyone. The Ratboys yelled to each other as what seemed a bright, exciting flicker quickly spread and smoke rushed through the air like a punishing phantasm, as though a residing spirit of Jack Rush was left behind as guard.

They’d escaped, all of them thank shank, tumbling from the windows and bursting out the door. As soon as they were clear and most of them had scattered down various alleys, India had turned to receive a blow from Skiv. It connected with an already existing bruise from Rush, and hurt twice as much.

They pounced on each other, fists flying, knees punching into stomachs and feet lashing out. They fought dirty, like wild dogs, breaking apart every few minutes to snarl and spit and curse. Watched hungrily by the others.

‘Give it to me,’ said Skiv.

‘Give you what.’ India wiped the sweat from his face and pulled the straggled hair from his eyes.

‘The necklace. I saw you take it. You owe it to me for what happened back there.’

‘That wasn’t my fault.’

‘It was your idea to raid the place. Give it to me.’

‘You ain’t getting it.’

They met again, and India found his back hurled against the stony ground and pinned. He twisted and kicked and Skiv grabbed his throat and squeezed.

India punched Skiv’s head and his midriff, again and again, but he couldn’t get the angles or the momentum and the blows couldn’t dissuade the hands choking him, robbing him of his energy.

Black and purple motes dotted before his vision and with a sudden, almost instinctive remembrance he pulled out the shining dagger he had taken at the house. It slipped into Skiv’s side as though it was moving through butter. It met no bones.

Skiv fell aside with a yelp, and the dagger sucked itself out, still in India’s hand. India scrambled up, and without looking backwards, at Skiv or the audience of Ratboys, he ran.

India never knew what became of Skiv. He didn’t visit Mohawk again for a year, and when he did he stuck to other districts, and carefully avoided the Ratboys. If Skiv was still alive, then he would want his revenge. And if he wasn’t . . . if he wasn’t, then those loyal to him, or those who counted him among their friends might want their own revenge.

He never knew whether Skiv had lived or died, and he didn’t want to know. He’d thrown the blade away, and he’d never thrown away something valuable before. He remembered crouching outside the Aztec Tomb and shivering in the rain, his hair plastering itself to his face.

He’d never wanted to touch a blade again. He remembered the sound Skiv had made and his eyes. His eyes.

On the deck of the Ship of the Dead, India kicked the cutlass away from him without looking. And fingered the sun pendant that hung from his neck.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #4

Sorry for the delay in India Bones and the Ship of the Dead coming out – it’s been long finished, I’m just waiting on a good cover!

In the meantime, here’s the fourth short installment, leading on from Part 3.

 

*

 

India walked the grey planks of the ship, feeling half-dead himself. Around him skull faces eyed him from empty sockets. There was saltspray coming in off the wind, but no part of the deck or rails felt damp; instead, the wood was dry and dusty and pock-marked. He ran his fingers along the side and it crumbled. He felt like a good enough gale would blow the whole lot into the sea. It almost didn’t seem like wood at all, and he blanched when the idea popped in his head that he was walking on grey bones.

‘You know what mate,’ a voice came from behind him, and he turned to see Grimmer.

‘What?’

‘I never asked you your name. And I called you rude. Where were my manners?’

‘It’s India Bones.’

Grimmer gave a short laugh, and this time India, with fixed attention, saw that the sounds seemed to be in slight discord with the movement of his jaw, and he realised they were not coming from a material presence at all. The mouthless jaw merely worked its best to accompany them.

‘Bones aye?’ Grimmer said. ‘Well you’re in the right company, that’s for sure.’

India looked back out at the sea.

‘You hungry, Mr Bones?’

‘Call me India. You eat?’

‘Sure, sure. Well, we eat for nostalgia, at any rate. But I remember what it’s like to be actually hungry. We’ve got plenty of ship biscuits. Look,’ Grimmer reached into the shadows of his coat and fished out a round black thing. ‘Take it.’

India looked at it. ‘Is it edible?’

‘You’re in no position to turn it down, let’s put it that way.’

‘Alright.’ India took it and bit off a corner. It was chewier than he figured, both salted and sugared, and not half-bad. There was a slight touch of death to it, but nothing’s perfect.

‘How many are on this ship?’ India asked.

‘Thirteen,’ Grimmer said. ‘Can’t make it up, can you? I always wonder if we’re going to get anymore, but it’s been years and no more, so maybe that’s that.’

‘Fourteen, now.’

‘For now. Can’t be having with you ruining our unlucky number,’ Grimmer said.

‘The others keep looking at me.’

‘Of course they do, what do you expect? The living stare at the dead, can’t expect the dead not to stare at the living. But look, none of us jolly rogers means you any harm. See him?’ Grimmer pointed. ‘That’s Sockets. He’s alright, he just stares a lot. And him?’ Grimmer gestured at a large skeleton with a big chest by the mainsail. ‘That’s Big Cage. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless the fly hurt him first, of course. There, she’s Hairless – and ain’t she pleased she can wear a corset now without it being hard to breathe? No more breathing for her, except out of habit.’ Grimmer turned. ‘Over there, looking rightfully sheepish, that’s Spares. Recognise him?’

‘Y-es,’ India said. ‘Yes.’ And he did. Now he saw them one by one, he realised it wasn’t that hard to tell them apart at all. It wasn’t just their clothes and adornments, or their bone structure. There was something about each of them that made them as different individuals as he and Mr Bassard.

India looked further along the ship, and saw a skeleton standing near the helm. He was taller than the others, bar Big Cage, and wore a black tricorne hat and long black coat. Belts glinting with metal were twisted and tied about his bones, and each strap holstered a pistol – three, maybe four in all. But it was the bones themselves that took India’s eyes. Alone amongst the others, his skeleton was as black as his clothes.

‘Ah,’ Grimmer said, seeing where India’s gaze lay. ‘That’s Blackbone. No, we don’t know why he looks like that. Maybe he fell deeper and darker than any of the rest of us, afore he was pulled out of the brine and onto these decks. He doesn’t speak much, and I doubt he wants you here, so best not try and make friends too hard. He’s the least jolly of all of us jolly rogers.’

‘Is he the captain?’

‘No, no. There’s no captain on this ship. But if there was, I reckon it’d be Blackbone.’

‘Can I be captain?’

‘Ha! Bit presumptuous, aren’t you? Bit quick on the draw? No, you can’t be captain. See the ship’s wheel? I told you nobody can touch it, not even Blackbone. The ship is its own master.’

‘I see,’ India said, not really seeing. Grimmer, sensing he wanted to be alone, nodded and strode slowly off.

India leaned over the side and stared at the swell of the sea. A thrill of excitement was beginning to dance around within him, marshalling troops to its cause. An excitement of having truly left Mexico Island for the first time in over thirteen years. On being on board a real ship – a grey, mouldering ship, but a ship no less – and sailing the seas with creatures of dark magic, with the dead, perhaps the only living person to have ever done so.

Well, he always did know he was special.

There was another pang of homesickness, for the alleys of Rug, the Mohawk markets, the comfort and security of Mrs Wayles and the inebriated friendship of Mr Bassard. The palms trees that swayed on the southern beach, the jungles and cliffs in the centre of the island, the Aztec Tomb . . .

But the pang was getting blown away by the sea breeze; wisp by wisp it was being replaced with salt and wood and bones.

He wondered what kind of ship it was. A brig, a frigate? It didn’t quite have the shape of anything he’d seen previously. There was less of a crew than you’d expect for a ship of this size, so a lot of space for him to cast his eyes about, filling his gaze with the huge white sails billowing in the breeze, with the forestry of the masts and the ropes and the netting. He looked at the helm, at the wheel, and imagined commanding the whole ship, turning it to his course, yelling orders to the crew, stuck to his post in sun and storm.

He drank it in, and then he returned his eyes to the sea, and drank that in too.

This wasn’t the same sea he saw from the beaches. There was no shoreline to lap against. Here, the waves moved like beasts, rolling long and fat and huge. No doubt under the surface dark leviathans with unknowable minds and purpose pushed the waves along, guiding them back and forth to each other.

An orange sun beat against his eyes and flashed off the water.

The water that was everywhere and the water that was forever.

India squinted into the sun and looked away. Had that much time passed already? How long had he been out?

He had a funny feeling inside him, a very funny feeling –

The ship plunged into another beast-wave, and the prow soared up over the crest, and India was suddenly, violently sick.

 

*

 

India was laid up in the hammock he’d woken in, belly finally settling and closing eyes witnessing the night through the porthole. The moon flashed over him as the great gloom of sleep folded in.

His thoughts, not yet fully dreaming, drifted like the ocean current back towards Eyeless and Rug, Mohawk and Maiden, back towards the jungles and the cliffs and, finally, deliberately, the Aztec Tomb.

A long time ago, the Caribbean had been ruled by the fabulously rich, and now very dead, Aztec Empire. Nobody were quite sure how it had ended; there were many theories, and maybe all of them were true, maybe none of them. All India knew was that the Aztecs weren’t around anymore. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t left things. There were still ruins, he knew. And where there were ruins there must, inevitably, be treasure.

India would go looking for Aztec Gold. People would laugh at him, tell him he was wasting his time. Everything here was dug up, ransacked, stolen and sold a long time ago. Same the world over. The only thing left was the lost treasure of Bucklemeir Horn, and the search for that had long been abandoned, and its existence become a mere legend.

In time India would agree that Mexico Island was barren as far as riches were concerned. But the world was much bigger; there was West and East Indigo, there was San Dillinger and Tortugal, there was India, the City of Gold on the island of Indiana, that had to have something, of course it did, and these ladies and gents who had spent their whole lives locked in their own houses had never seen any of it. They just assumed. You couldn’t just assume.

There was only one tomb he’d found on Mexico Island, a few miles east of Rug and into the jungles at the top of the cliffs there. He’d scrambled and climbed for an hour, scratched by branches, twisted by vines and cut on rocks, and when he’d got there he’d found a path that had led all the long way back to Rug itself. The tomb had been empty, of course, and not just that, it was also dusted and smoothed and there were fences up and even a sign. There were a few Ratboys and a couple of older Mohawkians lounging around the entrance and inside, drinking and guffawing. They’d given him the eye and he’d given them it back. He’d slouched over to the side of the tomb walls and put his back against it. Eventually he’d gone home.

He’d visited again, many times. He’d soon learned when nobody else would be there and would always come at these times, pacing the tomb and searching for imaginary treasure and cutting down imaginary pirates. He always took the cliff climb up to the tomb. He tried to pretend the path wasn’t there, except on the way back, when he was tired and dirty and often bruised and bleeding, and the moon was out and lit the cliff as the quick route to death. The path lay half gleaming in stops and starts, as though draped silver had itself been clad in shifting, filtered shadows.

India’s breathing slowed, and the shadows of that jungle path danced about him, taking on black, grinning shapes, and then they were sails, whipping at him from all sides with the wind that seemed to suck itself from the very earth, and the trees were gone, the path was gone, there was only water and salt, salt as far as the eye could see . . .

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #3

I’ve finished writing my fourth novel! The YA (sort-of, hopefully adults will like it too!) pirate fantasy India Bones and the Ship of the Dead.

I’m editing it ready to send to agents. Also, I’ll have my previous (adult) novel WULF up in its entirety online very soon (about time!), just waiting on a cover.

Here’s the third little part of India Bones, following on directly from the last part I put up here, and beginning at the start of the second chapter.

 

TWO

 

 

He awoke to find himself lying in a hammock in a small wooden cabin with a skeleton staring at him.

Staring may have been the only expression it had to offer, but it did it well. It was wearing a long black coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and it leaned nonchalantly in the doorway in a manner more suited to the living.

‘Ahoy,’ it said.

India shivered and shrank away, as best he could do being in a hammock. His head swayed painfully and the cabin seemed to sway with it.

‘Rude,’ said the skeleton.

India made eye contact and tried to summon some resolve back. ‘Where . . . am I?’ he swallowed mid-sentence to stifle a stammer.

‘Who should be the first question.’

‘Who am I?’

‘Oh, no. Who am I?’

‘Right.’ India sat up in the hammock, his aching head in his hands. His fear was quickly melting away, to be replaced with confusion. ‘Who are you?’

The skeleton inclined its head. ‘My name is Grimmer.’

‘Uh. And where am I Grimmer?’

The skeleton grinned, a skill it was excellent at. ‘Why, you’re on the Ship of the Dead.’

India fell back and closed his eyes. He felt a little nauseous, and dots chased each other under his eyelids.

‘I quite understand,’ Grimmer said.

‘How did I get here?’ India managed at last.

Grimmer sighed. ‘That was Spares. He carried you aboard.’

‘Why?’

‘He thought you were one of us.’

India opened his eyes and dared another look at the skeleton, half-expecting it to have vanished and to see the familiar sight of his room at Mrs Wayles’s. ‘Just because I have face paint on?’ he said. ‘I look nothing like you! You’re – well, you’re dead!’

‘He was very, very drunk. Not that any of us were sober, but he was something else. I’ve already had quite the bone to pick with him. It’ll take him some time to find it.’

‘Mmm.’

‘You see the thing is mate, we can’t just take you back. You’re stuck with us for now. Damn fool Spares.’

India squeezed his eyes shut and opened them once more. Still there. ‘How’s that?’

‘There’s no turning back. The ship has its own course, it sails us you understand.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Truth be told, nor do I much. But that’s how it is. Oh, the crew helps out, but I think that’s more cause we need something to do, a way to be useful. We climb the rigging and hoist the sails and swab the decks. But nobody can turn the wheel. It turns on its own.’

India tried to think this through, and gave up. ‘So . . .’

‘So where we going next? Kingston is our next call. We won’t be putting up to the docks though, but this lonely beach to the west that seems almost nobody knows about but us. See, with small, superstitious towns like Eyeless it’s alright to land near everyone, as they keep their respectful, fearful distance, and besides, we like to put on a bit of a show now and again. The mist and the blackness draws in, the big horn sounds . . . you know, all very fun. Nice and theatrical. But try that somewhere like the thick of Kingston and – I’m not saying they ain’t superstitious too, they all are, but there’ll just be too many people, and with lots of people crowding things there’s always some idiot who gets drunk and comes and spoils things. Not that you’re an idiot. At least you didn’t have a gun. And that face paint. Inspired. Never known anyone alive wanting to look dead before.’

Grimmer tapped his ribcage and tilted his head. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I haven’t had anybody living to talk to for some time. All these words tumbling out.’ He grinned, or rather, something happened to his face that India couldn’t quite explain.

‘How do you speak, Grimmer?’ India asked, realising one of the many paramount things that were bothering him.

‘How’d you mean?’

‘How’d you speak with no tongue?’

‘A tongue’s the least of your worries mate. I haven’t got a voice box neither. Or lips. Or a gullet to drink, lungs to breathe, heart to beat, eyes to see you with.’ Grimmer leaned in. ‘Just cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.’ He looked away at the sea. ‘Do you know of phantom limbs?’

India shook his head.

‘When a limb gets amputated, sometimes people get the sensation that it’s still there. They can feel it, and they can feel it working too. Well us skeletons have phantom bodies. They’re stuck to our bones same as yours are. You can’t see them nor touch them, but we got ghost skin and ghost organs all there in order, all working like a shadow of the living. Or at least pretending to.’

India swallowed. The thought was disquieting. ‘What do you really look like then?’

‘I look like this!’ Grimmer opened his arms. ‘Hell, I don’t know what I look like anymore. I’ve known naught but these bones for too long.’

‘How did this happen? I mean, what got you all like this? On this ship, without bodies – well, without bodies to see.’

Grimmer smiled. ‘I wondered when we’d get around to the main thrust of questioning. We’re all sailors see. Pirates, merchants, even a few from various navies. Gave our life to the sea. But when we died we made a bad deal. We sold our bodies.’

‘You mean you sold your souls.’

‘No, we sold our bodies. We kept our souls. All that’s left of our bodies is the bones, and the ghost essence. The soul has had enough time to get used to the form it inhabits that it stays there after the body, the physical tangible body has gone.’

‘Who did you sell it to?’

‘To Davy Jones, of course. Who else? In return we kept our time in this world. Not realising the cost. Not realising we’d stay here, like this, forever. Or until our bones break into tiny pieces and our spirit becomes formless and can do nothing but haunt. After the deal was done some of us dead folk wandered, and still are wandering. They are rare sights, for there aren’t too many of us that made the deal, whose bodies have lasted the wear and tear of this world. You might bump into one on land if you’re terribly lucky. Not counting Tortugal, that is – we got a little spot of our own there. Otherwise it’s a solitary existence. Not many folk want to be friends with the dead. And there ain’t much that satisfies when your body is just a ghost. The best we got is alcohol. That still has a bit of a kick left, when it’s still dripping through our bones. Alcohol and dancing.’

Grimmer sighed. ‘And that’s where the rest of us ended up. The Ship of the Dead. Picking up all the wayward selfish scurves who made the wrong choice at the end of their thieving lives. I don’t know how long it’s been sailing these seas. Nobody does. Since the beginning, perhaps. There’s no captain. The only one sailing it is all the souls of the broken-boned.  Or something else entirely. Who knows how many spirits haunt this ship. Taking it from place to place.’

India was listening open-mouthed. It seemed like something out of some dark fairy tale. ‘Why do you visit Mexico Island to dance once every ten years?’ he asked.

‘Dancing and drinking’s all we have. As for ten years, well we’ve got a lot of places to visit, a lot of distant seas to sail. The ship only seems to get back round to Mexico Island after ten years. Maybe cause it’s out of the way, maybe some other reason we don’ t know. I think a few of the others take ten or so years to visit again, it’s just they’re all at different times. Other places we come to more often. We just fall into the ship’s strange routine. The dead are nothing if not consistent.’

India nodded. ‘I’ve got one more question.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Why are you wearing clothes?’

Grimmer laughed, a strange, clattery sound. ‘Why are you? It’s not cold. There’s little more reason to keep your body covered than ours. But there’s a lot of character in a body’s clothes. When you don’t have meat you can see on you, no real face, only a fading memory of what you used to look like, if that, then having your own clothes can do its bit to make you you. In your own eyes as in the eyes of others.’

‘Well, shank me,’ India said, shaking his head. ‘This is all a bit much.’

Grimmer laughed again. ‘Aye, I know. Look, we’ll drop you off at the Lonely Carib Beach, that’s what we call that place we put in at Kingston. We won’t be dancing there or making much of any kind of spectacle, just sitting and wandering and skimming stones, hidden by jungle. So you can take your leave and head to the city. After that though, afraid you’re on your own.’

‘That’s alright. Thanks. I’ll find some coin and then a ship to take me home.’ India paused. ‘Well. I don’t know. I guess I’ll see how I feel.’

‘First time away from the parents?’

‘My mother is dead,’ India said. ‘I never met my father.’

‘Oh,’ Grimmer said. ‘Sorry to hear that mate. You’re in good company for now. Pretty sure all our parents are long gone.’

‘I want to find my father,’ India said, looking down.

‘I’d put money on it,’ Grimmer said, clapping him on the back. India shivered at the touch, then looked apologetically up.

Grimmer pretended like he hadn’t noticed. ‘I’ll leave you for a bit,’ he said. ‘Let you get your head in order. And I want to talk to some of the others, too.’ He got up and walked out the cabin, leaving India alone.

India sat up in the hammock and put his head in the hands. Not out of upset, but to try and stop the swaying, and get to grips with the situation. He wasn’t quite ready to stand up, fearing he might instantly fall on his face.

He’d tried to leave Mexico Island several times in his life, each time without success. He’d stowed away on ships and either been caught and flogged, or he’d bottled it and took off, flushed with the thrill and fear of getting that far. Last year he’d stayed until they’d weighed anchor and were out in the bay, before being discovered by the bosun. They’d shouted at him and rowed him back to the docks. He’d been thankful for it, as he’d felt a little sick from the whole deal, completely out of his depth as it were. No matter how often he might think of himself as an adventurer or a pirate, truth was he was still just a kid, and he’d lived his own life in a tiny patch of a much wider world.

That was the last time he’d got anywhere, for Mrs Wayles had stepped in, letting it be known to all sailors of Eyeless and Maiden both, that nobody was to give passage to India Bones or else. Even the roughest of sailors had no desire to get on the wrong end of one of Mrs Wayles’s Or Elses, and so India found himself shipblocked as soon as he approached any one of the gangways. Even when he’d gathered enough coin for legal passage, he was turned away.

‘You’re just a babe,’ Mrs Wayles had said. ‘You think you can take on the whole world but you just can’t. Suppose the ship took you and deposited you someplace. Someplace civil even, like Kingston. Then what? How you gonna be feeding yourself? Where will you sleep? The world won’t just turn over on account of your dreams, India. It’ll master you afore you master it. Is that what your father would have wanted? Maybe one day, when you’re all grown up, and when you’re no longer under my care, you can follow in his footsteps. But right now, you just stay here and stay away from those damn docks.’

And so he’d slunk off, undecided whether to scowl or feel sorry for himself, so he’d done a bit of both.

One day.

He’d never much had the patience for reading – he didn’t want to read about things, he wanted to see and experience them for himself – but year after year he’d trace his finger over maps, looking at all the places he wanted to visit, places he knew so little about but fired his imagination with their strange, foreign names and promises of mystery and adventure.

The Caribbean formed the centre of the map, and was rich with opportunities. East of Mexico Island were popular places such as Kingston and J’maika, Colorado and the fabled Indiana, with its capital ‘City of Gold’ that he was named after. Not to mention pirate haven Tortugal, home to the giant mountain of Nassar (that India would one day climb). Kingston was the Caribbean hub, ruled from afar by York, and so frequently on the wrong side of pirates. The joke was that it was called such because everybody there acted like kings, they were that pompous and arrogant.

York was on the Continent, which lay to the north of the Caribbean, and as large (and self-important) as the country and its neighbour Bordeaux were compared to the Caribbean islands, they were dwarfed still by the other lands of the Continent: China, the Harem Empire, and the vast Khan Wastes to their east.

Then there were all the other places in the world any self-respecting adventurer would long to explore. Countries little written about, and some almost entirely unknown in India’s part of the world. The cluster of a thousand tiny islands and networked waterways that was Asia. The sprawling countries of Afrika and Barbary, and the great temples and sphynxes of Gyptia. The deep jungles of Amazonia, and the rolling grasslands and mountain ranges of Zealand to the far south. Maybe even the Northern and Southern Icelands, if he could wrap up well enough for them (he had the feeling that he wouldn’t know what cold really was until he went there).

One day.

And now, here he was, on the Ship of the Dead, with a skeleton crew, and on open water.

No turning back, that’s what Grimmer had told him. No turning back.

India tried to quell the ache within him, but he felt his thirteen years of age keenly, and he had to take a hard grip of the hammock support to steady himself.

He only took his fingers away when he became aware of them hurting, and looking at his fingertips he saw they’d been pressed white.

 

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India Bones and the Ship of the Dead #2

Still going strong with India Bones. I’d say I’m about half way through, maybe more. Here’s the next little part.

 

INDIA BONES AND THE SHIP OF THE DEAD

By Set Sytes

 

*

 

India had been watching for a full hour, and the dead were still dancing. He’d borrowed a spyglass from the white-whiskered gentleman and had it clamped tight against his eyeball, occasionally switching eyes when one grew tired. He saw the skeletons pour drink after drink down themselves, saw it slosh through the ribcages and hit the sand.

Some of them ambled and shuffled, some of them jigged and cavorted, some of them linked each other by the arms and swung around, changing partners to the tune. One of them was flat on his back (India assumed it was a he, but who could really tell?), with another skeleton pouring a bottle over his skull. The pourer seemed to be laughing; at least, his jaw was open. Their grins were just lipless teeth, but somehow even without skin or muscles the expressions seemed to subtly, inexplicably change. As India glassed them, he saw them individually portray exuberant joy, mirth, relaxed appreciation, concentration (on drinking or dancing), tiredness, and total inebriation. One of them was sat facing away from the others, staring out at the waves and drawing patterns in the sand with his fingers. It might have just been bones on display, but India could see clearly they had their own personalities and emotions. These were not unthinking bogey-monsters raised from the grave to terrify and do a master’s bidding. These were people.

India was thrilled that it was quiet little Eyeless, his own home town, and not the bustling port of Maiden, that received the Ship. He knew folks from Maiden who were rightly jealous. It was the Eyeless claim to fame, about the only thing they could lord it over the rest of Mexico Island with. India figured it wasn’t favouritism, the skeletons probably just didn’t want the fuss and bother of putting in on busy docks. A plain beach was all they needed. Still, seeing such an incredible and outlandish event appear in clear sight of the houses and taverns he’d grown up around, was as exciting as it was disorientating.

India put his hand on the coat of the white-whiskered cove, still stood beside him.

‘You done with the spyglass?’ The man said, glancing down at him.

‘No. I mean, yes, sir,’ India murmured, still in a bit of a daze. Something had just occurred to him. ‘How long will they be here for?’

‘Oh, quite some time if past years are anything to go by. Why?’

‘Nobody ever joins in?’

The man looked down at him again, narrowing his brow. ‘Joins in? Of course not. It’s the dead.’

India nodded. ‘Here’s your glass back sir.’

‘Where are you going? You can’t miss this. You know it won’t be for another decade?’

‘I’ll be back soon.’

 

*

 

India stood in front of Mrs Wayles’s mirror. He was finishing painting his face. White with big black eyes, and black lines for teeth painted over his lips. A little black for the nose and cheekbones. He carefully added some of the greasepaint to his neck, and turned his attention to his hands. White fingers jointed with black.

He took a step back and grinned. ‘India Bones means something now,’ he said to himself. He left the building and headed back towards the Merchant Hall.

The music was loud once more, when he started to pass the groups and loners watching the dance of the dead from along the embankment, still some distance from the Hall. Most of them were too enraptured in the sight to pay him any mind, but a couple of drinking youths turned at his approach. For a second he saw them fearful, and then confused. Quickly, though, their faces turned to scorn, and a touch of pity, which for India there was nothing worse.

‘What in the hell do you look like,’ one of them said.

‘Nothing like you, thank god,’ India replied. He continued walking, not speeding up and not slowing down.

‘Are you wearing makeup?’ the other said.

‘Does it matter?’ India said.

‘Girls wear makeup,’ the first said, as India passed them.

‘Girls do a lot of things,’ India called over his shoulder. ‘And so do I.’

He left them behind, and approached the Merchant Hall. However, instead of turning to enter it from the inwards-facing front doors, he turned left along its side, walking down the embankment and onto the beach. He was by the Hall’s supports and below the level of the windows, so he knew they couldn’t see him from within. But that wouldn’t last long.

He approached the dead slowly.

The sand seemed to crunch under his boots. He walked with a heady bravado courtesy of the contents of Mr Bassard’s bottle, but as he neared his spirit began to falter. When his mind was begging him to turn around and run, his legs were still obeying his first command, his deeper desire to join the dance. The ice blue fire flashed in his eyes, he stumbled forward, and before he knew it he found himself with the skeletons, and they hadn’t noticed him.

He stood frozen, staring, unable to go forward or back. Then he was gripped by bone, and swung, and gripped, and swung, and suddenly he was dancing with the dead.

He was flung from skeleton to skeleton, feeling the bones, swung hard against ribcages, grinning skulls one after another in front of him. He found a bottle in his hand and he swigged it and let it set a fire in his throat.

He was sweating, and laughing, his mind adrift as he moved to the music. The dead all around him, clutching at him, and they were laughing too, laughing and singing, dry voices that punctuated the raucous melodies and rhythmic booming of the drum.

It was when the stars themselves were spinning and he thought he might pass out, that the job was done for him. A flailing arm came out of the blinding fire and hit his head like a club, and the fire diminished, and went black.

 

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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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