Sun. Pain. I cracked open my eyes and saw land. ‘Sol!’ I said.
‘CAPTAIN Sol,’ she said – and crumpled.
‘We’re saved,’ I said. ‘Right? SOL!’
Sol awoke. She sat up, unsticking her tarred hair from the deck of our stolen boat. ‘We’re sinking.’
I leapt overboard and swam to save us.
I wanted to drink the sea, but I swam. The waves flung me upside down and the sea darkened as I drowned.
Sol grasped my neck.
I passed out.
The sizzle of frying eggs woke me.
‘Yep,’ said Sol to a bald man beside us, ‘nasty pirates coming. Best hide your treasure. We’ll help.’
We ate bread and wine and milk, and a yellow fruit that tasted like chocolate. It was fun, pretending to be good.
I got a stomach ache.
Treasure, I discovered, is heavy. But Sol wore a girlish smile so I didn’t say a word.
The locals thought we were just kids. But we weren’t.
The bald elder missed his jewels, so our good times ended fast.
‘Ulandin,’ Sol grinned, ‘don’t waste our loot on food. Let’s steal a ship.’
A beggar took pity on me and gave us his crusts to gnaw. ‘I’m called Oldy,’ he said.
Sol said, ‘Ulandin’s my first mate. Wanna be our crew?’
Oldy sang songs until the harbour guards left. We chose the best ship and crept past its crew into the hold.
‘Great,’ I said, ‘we’re stuck.’
The crew was dull with sleepiness. Oldy rose like a grey ghost in the bridge.
Sol used magic to fell three men. The rest ran for help.
Oldy said, ‘Sol’s a quickener? She moves objects by just touch?’
‘It’s common enough.’
‘Not at sea. It’s bad luck.’
‘Sol’s used to that.’
‘The guards have swords,’ I said.
Sol said, ‘Want one?’
‘I want to go.’
She quickened the ship. We sailed away with every sail still closed.
Sol slept, so we drifted. The sun weighed heavy on my shoulders.
‘At least I wasn’t a slave,’ said Oldy.
I said, ‘We both escaped.’
The ship’s old owners left tasty food in it – salted meat, squishy fruit and lots of crackers. Also rum.
Maybe I drunks a bit too muchness.
Sol magically bellied out the sails. We were all surprised when we started going backward.
I tried not to laugh.
Sol broke my tooth anyway.
Sol delighted in the burning wind and sun and the constant desperate clapping of our sails.
‘Look,’ said Oldy. ‘Is that a ship – or land?’
‘It’s a ship,’ I said at first light, ‘so do we meet them – or do we run?’
Sol picked at her tarred hair and said, ‘Let’s take their crew.’
The wind tore at my eyes. Sol yelled, ‘Trim the sails!’ I actually thought she meant to cut them.
Oldy suddenly knew how to sail – somehow.
‘Pink!’ Sol screamed. ‘Stupid pink sky! And why is that ship still running?’
‘We’ll get them,’ I said.
‘Or they’ll get us,’ said Oldy.
‘Sol – Captain Sol?’ I said. ‘Hit me if you like, but there’s forty of them and three of us. And Oldy’s. . . old.’
‘Poor them,’ she smirked.
The wind dropped and we caught them.
They laughed at us. I longed to hide behind Oldy.
Then Sol arose, grabbed a rope, and swung across.
‘Do you surrender?’ she cried.
They grabbed swords, but she still had her magic.
Their ship shattered.
‘We’re sorry miss!’ they wept.
‘A captain goes down with his ship,’ said Sol – and tied him to his mast. His ship screamed as it sank.
He screamed as long as he could.
I said, ‘I’m afraid of her – but I know I’m made to follow her. Are you the same?’
‘No,’ said Oldy. ‘I’m not afraid. And I’m following you.
‘Stop cowering,’ Sol told our new crew, ‘I dislike it. Now, hows about we attack a real target – like an island. Who here wants to be rich?’
I asked Oldy why he was following me.
He said, ‘Sol has you. Now you have me.’
‘Everyone needs someone. I of all people know that.’
My back and wrists ached.
The sword tutor asked, ‘Will this island have women then?’
He cheered and toasted Sol – with my rum.
A man muttered something to his crewmates while Sol was out of sight.
I crept up and grabbed his arm.
He shrieked – EXACTLY like a girl.
‘But you ARE a girl,’ I said.
‘No I ain’t.’
‘Don’t the men know?’
‘Coz it ain’t true,’ she said, and picked her nose at me.
I gave up.
‘Li’s a girl,’ I told Oldy.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘she’ll be fine.’
‘How could anyone know that?’
He smiled, ‘I’m much older than I look.’
Sol cheated at lessons, using magic to bend the swords – then the teacher.
Luckily Oldy was a healer. ‘Kindly stop breaking arms,’ he said.
‘Wanna be free?’ Li asked.
I said, ‘Sol already freed me.’
She hauled on a sail: ‘Do you really think that?’
I tied a knot: ‘Don’t you?’
Night wind and stars. I shadowed men to Sol’s cabin, and yelled when they pulled out a knife.
She killed two in an eyeblink.
The rest fled.
I threw the bodies away, knowing Li had led them.
Sol and I kept watch in silence all night. Oldy slept on in his cabin.
I dreaded the dawn.
Sol judged us at dawn. Li confessed, and Sol threw her overboard.
The men vanished below like dust swept up.
But I saw Oldy steal the boat.
Oldy sauntered in and helped himself to salty breakfast stew.
‘Didn’t you go with Li?’ I asked.
He shrugged, ‘I came back.’
‘Who stole my boat?’ Sol screamed.
Oldy raised his hand. ‘You’re a fine captain. We won’t need it.’
Sol said, ‘You’ll live – for now.’
I showed Sol our hold. She said, ‘We still have food for – what – two days?’
‘About that,’ I said, ‘and we’re out of soap.’
We reached land, searched empty houses, and found a child’s skeleton clutching at dirt.
‘Anyone want to leave?’ Sol said.
The sun glared on something, and we sailed for it: a pirate ship.
‘Hurrah,’ said Sol, ‘they’ll have food AND treasure.’
The ship chased us.
I forgot my sword lessons and punched and bit. The real pirates slashed my arms and legs. We lost badly. Sol’s face was black with rage.
Sol ran her hand across the bars of our cell – tink, tink, tink. No-one else moved.
‘They’ll feed us soon,’ she said. ‘Then we’ll attack.’
I woke slumped against Oldy’s fuzzy beard. Sol was gone. Only our bodies held us up. Then Sol appeared with her arms full. ‘Anyone thirsty?’
Sol brought us food and life all night. Our guard almost saw her, but she passed magically through the outer wall of the ship until he left.
‘Do we fight now?’ I asked.
Sol said, ‘Anyone got a sword? No? Never mind. Oldy – come.’
We waited in silence, and heard nothing at all.
Sol said, ‘They’re all asleep.’
‘A healing sleep,’ Oldy said, ‘which I wish I had time to give you.’
We scoffed pie before we started work.
We locked the pirates in their filthy cell. Then we stole their cannons, food, and water. And soap. And all their boats. And LOTS of rum.
Sol sat on the bowsprit in the dashing spray, frowning. ‘Why, when we won, did half our crew desert?’
‘They’re afraid of you.’
I saw girls playing on a beach as we drew close.
‘Let’s attack some other island,’ I said hastily. ‘People with kids never have much loot.’
Sol politely traded a silver necklace for anchorage. She ordered our remaining crew to be good – no stealing, no killing – not yet.
I bought new clothes! Ones with no holes! And I bought myself a bright yellow hat, so I look nautical.
If only the ground would stop moving.
No crew returned. Sol said, ‘We’re it? A princess, a beggar and a slave?’
I said, ‘Princess? Who’s a –you?!’
‘NO!’ she said. ‘I- shut up.’
One man turned up.
‘Hello Mal,’ said Sol. ‘Where’s everyone?’
‘Fine,’ she said, ‘let’s burn this place and find a better one.’
Sol saw kids in a corner and had me take them outside. Once they were safe, we burned their home too.
The night sky turned grey with smoke.
I could still see the smoke as we sailed away. At least we hadn’t killed any kids.
Sol was content, even when Mal burnt our dinner to ashes.
‘If you’re following me, does that mean you’ll help me – if things get bad?’
‘Yes,’ said Oldy.
After that talk, I was able to get to sleep.
‘Why are all the islands here so black?’ Sol grumbled.
Oldy said, ‘When we take over an island, what will we do with it?’
‘Anything I want.’
Sol and I practised swordfighting, and I noticed her hands were soft.
‘A princess ain’t much,’ she growled at me, ‘just a slave in a dress.’
Rain poured until my clothes were rough as rocks. We sailed, but we couldn’t see. Sol made us stay on watch – staring into the stormy dark.
Water spilled into our cabins and slicked the wooden floors.
Oldy paced the hold as the ship staggered. ‘It’s not time. Not yet,’ he said.
At last I found my guts.
‘What do you know about this?’ I shouted at Oldy above the howling wind.
He said, ‘I know we all survive tonight.’
The wind threw me into a mess of ropes and I was trapped. It tossed me around and dunked me under waves. A rope slipped around my neck.
Sol slashed through the ropes, saving my life again. ‘Lazy sod,’ she yelled over the thunder, ‘come help throw the cannons overboard.’
We threw away our weapons and our food, but Sol kept her treasure. The lightened ship flew over the ocean. We hurtled deeper into the dark.
Rain. Hail. Rope burns on my arms and chest. Can’t see. Can’t eat. Can’t think. All I can do is hold on until the end. If this ever ends.
The sky was lit by stars instead of lightning. I hung out all my clothes, and asked Oldy how he knew we’d live.
He said, ‘I always know.’
We lay in the sun and slept. Sol was naked, so I was careful not to look. Oldy snored.
When I stood, my shape was outlined in dark wet wood.
‘We were blown into unfamiliar seas,’ said Sol, ‘so I bet there’s a REALLY rich island nearby.’
‘Sol,’ I said, ‘look – land!’
The locals wore purple and carried gold on their wrists and necks.
‘This is the place,’ said Sol.
Oldy and I exchanged glances.
We practised sword work below decks, out of sight of the people we spied on. Their guards were fat and sleepy, and the houses left unlocked.
Oldy didn’t speak to me, but I knew he was ready. And I knew he was more than he seemed. He frightened me more than Sol – who scared me too.
A boy asked Sol for food.
She looked at him. ‘You want gold?’
‘No,’ said the boy, ‘just bread.’
‘Be one of us,’ said Sol.
‘Okay – captain.’
The forgotten children came to us one by one – dark-haired, dark-eyed, and ready to fight as Sol’s army.
Oldy sang to them as night fell.
Sol taught the kids swordwork. One of them slashed her belly open – then cowered in fear. ‘Get up, kid,’ said Sol, ‘Red looks good on me.’
Kids kept cutting one another while training. ‘Can we just fight with knives and rocks, like usual?’ one asked, scratching his bloody chin.
Sol and I watched the harbour. ‘That ship’s better’n ours,’ said Sol, ‘so when we rule here, I’m gonna make it mine. The blue one’s for you.’
‘We’re under attack!’ Sol yelled. I ran to save the kids, but by the time I reached them our attackers had fled – bleeding and afraid.
Night fell over two rows of fighters – the guards standing between us and their island, and our own vicious pack lined up on our port side.
‘Signals,’ said Sol.
I asked, ‘To who?’
‘To our other ships, of course.’
We signalled instructions all day. I don’t even know what we said.
Finally most of our guards had left – to find our imaginary fleet.
‘Now?’ I asked Sol.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I want them more afraid.’
The horizon was red with fire, and the air tasted bitter with smoke. Our kids came back from their missions grinning and scorched.
All the guards went to save their homes. We anchored off-shore. The guards returned black-faced with ash and rage.
‘Tomorrow,’ said Sol.
Oldy stayed on board. We all rowed to shore in three boats. The few quay guards crowded one another, falling into the sea for Sol to kill.
Sol said, ‘See that house on the hill – the one with the turrets? That’s where we’re going.’
‘Yes captain,’ I sighed. Oldy was far away.
The kids ran ahead up the winding road, fighting anyone that got in our way. By the time we reached the castle, no one remained but us.
Sol ordered a throne of gold, and we made it.
‘Bring me a slaver,’ she said.
We brought one – and she stabbed him.
Sol killed, and killed again. No one seemed to know why any more. Bile rose in my throat.
Oldy remained at the ship, so I was alone.
‘Kid, what’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Take a message. Tell Oldy to draw Sol away from here – somehow.’
Hin ran straight to Sol.
I didn’t sleep or eat. The kids patrolled the streets, mockingly calling for me. ‘Come out, come out, Ulandin. Captain wants to see you.’
I climbed onto a roof to sleep, but Hin saw me. Four more kids came running – but I had a sword. I slashed their legs and left them cursing.
Even the guards served Sol now, so I couldn’t take a boat. I crawled down the beach and swam like a sea-snake toward the distant ship.
I heard shouts and swam faster, gulping water. The kids laughed and threw rocks. One smashed into my shoulder, and my arm stopped working.
Oldy dived into the water and saved me.
‘Burn the ship,’ I whispered.
He said, ‘Aye, aye sir.’
We fought two kids, and the rest let us go.
Oldy healed my arm – or close enough. We poured oil into the hold, each cabin, and the galley. ‘This is it then,’ I said, and made a spark.
We sat on the galley tables drinking rum and pouring it on the walls. ‘How long will it burn?’ I asked.
Oldy shrugged: ‘She’ll come.’
‘Um, sir?’ said Oldy, waking me, ‘should we go on deck now?’ Behind him a flaming wall bent inward then fell to bits, spraying fire.
‘Hi boys,’ said Sol; a glowing outline. ‘Thanks for trying to save my ship, but it’s over. And that lying Hin is gone.’
We dived to safety.
Sol walked aft as the flames grew. ‘She’s going below!’ said Oldy.
‘Not without me,’ I said. I climbed the broken wood to save her.
Sol screamed at me from the bridge. ‘A captain goes down with her ship!’
‘It’s not your ship, remember?’
She paused. ‘Oh, FINE! Let’s go.’
We dived into cool water and blinked ash from our eyes. The kids lined the shore. Sol pointed at a better ship, and they went to fetch it.
Sol and I trod water. ‘I didn’t like ruling anyway,’ she said, ‘too much like home. Where’s Oldy?’
‘Gone,’ I said – but I knew he’d return.
We sailed at dawn, weighed down with loot – and drinking water. The sun turned our new ship’s sails pure gold, and Sol re-tarred her hair.