Life of a Pirate
The next morning I was put to work with the grunt job of swabbing, or washing, the deck. The deck needed to be kept clean and dry so that the pirates that were walking around wouldn’t slip and go overboard. I was told that once a person went overboard, they were as good as lost to the sea. It was said that the price that sailors and pirates paid for the bounty and beauty of the sea was the occasional accidental sacrifice. The people on board would do all they could, but the ship was so tall and the ocean so vast that it was not common for the person to be recovered.
I was given the job by Catrin, who was the duty officer.
“Celia, I don’t know what type of work you've done before, but this will certainly make you stronger. Your job is to keep the deck clean and dry. This job is always shared, since the ship is so large. You will be swabbing the starboard side of the deck. That is the entire deck to the right of the masts. You will start at the back of the ship and move forward and then turn around again.”
I was so exhausted the first day after swabbing that Bronwyn had to bring some dry bread to our room, since I couldn’t leave the bed for dinner. I was constantly bending, pushing the mop back and forth over the deck and each night I would take stock of my aches.
It was difficult to work on such a huge ship, even if I was only responsible for half the deck. The one deck seemed as large as my village with the three masts, captain’s quarters and the navigation room.
The ship was large enough that I was just one of several shifts of pirates who swabbed the deck. The other crew members took turns at swabbing, but it was my sole job at the moment. I rarely saw the same crew members twice, but it was nice to get a sense of the various members of the crew. There had to be more than a hundred, but I was so tired by the end of my shift that I kept forgetting to ask someone the specific number.
I was surprised to realize that after a few weeks of swabbing, the job was getting easier and my body was becoming more muscular. I really enjoyed working on the top deck. I was able to think about my decision to leave my old life for one with pirates, dragons and magic, and watch the pirates as they moved about the deck. It seemed as if most of the pirates made it up to the deck in the weeks I’d been swabbing.
I enjoyed listening to the pirates talk and joke while they worked. Everyone was good about introducing themselves to me and stopping to talk for a bit. I was quite the rare gem in that I had never heard their stories or jokes before so I was soon a favorite ear to bend when I took a break. It was good to be in front of other pirates as they worked on the rigging and the sails or just moved about in the open air, so they got to know me.
There were always many pirates who were regularly climbing the ropes and maintaining the masts and sails. They were friendly and said ‘hello’ or nodded their head to me in greeting. I also saw the blacksmiths and the carpenters regularly as they came to take measurements and fit pieces of iron or wood on the top deck where pieces were broken or worn.
The Aegir had three dragons on board, one I had yet to meet. They would each take turns flying over the ship at night, but it was especially amazing to watch the three of them fly together. They looked like they were doing stunts, flying loops around each other, flying straight into the air and then dropping back down only to twist and turn before they got close to the ship or the sea.
As I got more comfortable on the ship I walked over to get a closer look at the massive ship’s wheel that looked to be almost as tall as I was. The man standing at the wheel was well suited to his position as he seemed to be almost as wide as the wheel. His shoulders were so well muscled that I could see their strength even through his clothes. He was a bit older than me and tall so he could easily see over the wheel with his light brown hair pulled back at his nape. He introduced himself as Marco, the lead helmsperson.
When I had time, I’d talk with Marco or one of the other helmspeople steering the ship, always asking questions about where we were headed and how they knew where to go. I was told that the navigation was the job of the captain and Darab, the navigator.
I enjoyed the occasional company of Bronwyn during my evening break before dinner. She was working as an infirmary assistant to the ship’s Helwif or healer, Prudence, so her day was spent below deck. We would often sit up on the deck in a secluded spot so we could watch Emil fly over the ship in the evenings, catching the wind under his wings and sailing on the air as the ship was sailing on the sea. Bronwyn would let me feed him bits of rice mixed with coconut, the dragon’s favorite treat.
Captain Gawain’s quarters were built into the top deck of the ship, so I could sometimes see into them when I was swabbing nearby. She had a large room with a desk and a table with chairs for six. Gae Bulg was most often seen on Captain Gawain’s shoulder or perched on a piece of furniture in her quarters. I did not see Gae Bulg fly all that much. I was grateful for this as Gae Bulg was much larger than Emil and I was still frightened by the relative enormity of the red dragon. Captain Gawain often wore a deep, dark red vest over a cream shirt of the strongest silk, gloves of a deep red and black pants and boots. With the crimson red Gae Bulg on her shoulder she looked like she belonged in the most elegant of houses, as long as one discounted all the swords and knives that she showed. I often wondered how many she had hidden about her person. The captain would often greet me just as she greeted all of the pirates when she left her rooms. It was easy to see the devotion in the eyes of all the crew when they got a look or a word from the captain. She was very diligent about keeping tabs on the crew and her attention to my work made me feel like swabbing the decks was a really valuable job even though I had my suspicions that the crew was trying to bore me to death after I had been doing the job for a while.
After being trusted only to swab the deck and help load barrels of beer and water when we made our regular stops at tiny islands to pick up fresh supplies, I was finally called to a new assignment. This was good because although I was now able to find a spot of water and get it dry quickly I was more than ready to learn something new.
Unfortunately for me, the new assignment was to help wash the dishes in addition to swabbing the deck. But at least Catrin had arranged that my rotation on cleaning duty would be the same as Bronwyn’s. While I had washed dishes at home my regular chores were mostly household things like mending or getting the eggs from the chickens. While I had worked hard at my chores, only now did I have any idea of how hard Cook and Kitty had worked to make my life so much easier.
Bronwyn and I talked about the ship, the brief stops at islands to pick up supplies and our hard work while I used the water that had been heated on the fire to wash the dishes clean and Bronwyn dried them. I was completely disgusted by the yucky goo left over on the plates after everyone had eaten. After a few days, I had been trying so hard not to touch the goo it was inevitable that I accidentally dropped one of the plates. This was met by a shake of Bronwyn’s head and some sadness in Bronwyn’s blue eyes and much anger by Emmet.
“Ow could yew be breakin’ a plate after you’ve already learned how to wash! Now yew’ll be paying with yer back ye will!”
I was terrified. Until now I had not been met with any anger by the ship’s crew. All from a plate? And what did it mean that I will pay with my back? Did they whip crew members? I hadn’t seen this happen and I did not want to see it happen to me.
“I am terrible sorry sir. I will be happy to pay for the plate I broke.”
“Tis not in the payin’. Where would a new one be comin’ from, I ask? Now we have to make due with less cause of yew. Yew will have the punishment yew deserve. Now go find Catrin and stay out of my kitchen!”
I went to find Catrin to tell her what had happened, but I was shaking and my eyes were teary with fear of what they would do with me. I had heard stories of the harsh punishments meted out by fierce pirates. All the kindness I had been met with until now could easily have been a farce. I saw Catrin up on deck.
“Celia, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be helping Emmet.”
“Well, Miss Catrin,” I said timidly and with much fear, “I broke a plate!” and with those words I broke down crying and begging her for mercy. I must have looked like a weak fool.
“Now, now, Celia. What are you thinking we do to plate breakers? Hang them over the bow?”
I was still crying, but I managed a, “yes.”
“Well, we don’t. Now you have to go down to the bilge at the bottom of the ship where all the water that leaked into the ship settled and pump some out for a bit. No harm done, it just works your muscles, although, you will need something for the smell. Come with me.”
Catrin walked with me to the door that lead down to the bilge. Before I opened the door she went over to a bin and handed me a small bag of berries with strings attached to the sides that she pulled from it. The berries smelled cool, like the color blue, if that had a smell. I’d stopped crying when I heard that my punishment would be less horrible than I had imagined. Little did I know that the bilge was a horror of its own.
“How do I use this?”
“You put it over your nose and tie the strings around your head. It doesn’t take away all the smell, but it becomes more manageable. We bring them with us from Dragon Island.
“Just pump until the bilge is below the blue line. Then you’re done. Emmet will get over his anger quickly. He’s like a kettle; he blows hot, but cools fast.”
I was feeling slightly better about my life on the ship as I headed down to the bilge. It had to be pumped out by someone to keep the ship from getting too bottom heavy and sinking. I thought, “I might as well be that person.” Then I was hit with the smell. The cook might as well have hit me with a frying pan, the smell was so strong. I could tell that the bilge was not just the water that leaked in, but also rotting garbage, and human waste. The crew was told to relieve themselves off the ship’s side, but it was apparent from the smell, that everyone was not following those rules. I quickly vomited three times into a nearby bailing bucket until my stomach was empty and I could move again. I placed the mask over my nose and tied it tightly around the back of my head and continued into the hull of the ship. I found the bilge pump at the last doorway. It was not a complex piece of machinery and I rapidly figured out how to get it to move and I found the lines on the wall. I just stayed focused on the work of trying to lower the waste until it reached the blue line.
I started to feel better as I worked. The smell of the berries effectively masked the stink of the bilge. I continued the rhythmic up and down motion of the pump working through my fear of the cook and thinking about my decision to join up with this crew as I moved. Earlier than I had expected the level of dreck was down to the blue line and my punishment was served. I picked up the bucket I had used on my way back up to the top of the ship. Bronwyn was on deck waiting for me when I arrived. As I came up I noticed that she was digging through the dirt in some pots on the deck.
“Bronwyn, what are you doing?”
“Oh nothing, Celia. How are you? You look fine, although you need to bathe because now you smell!”
“I’m fine, Bronwyn, although I was not prepared for the stench of the place. That is truly a punishment.”
Bronwyn noticed my bucket. “It looks like you didn’t put your mask on soon enough. Next time you’ll know better.”
“I don’t plan on a next time.” I said with a look of dread in my eyes.
“There’s always a next time. We all make mistakes and we all need to take our turn with the bilge, either way. The bilge must be pumped out and it helps to keep us strong and less adverse to the smells and sights of battle.”
“Is Emmit ever going to feed me again? Or will he poison my food?”
“Oh don’t mind him. He’s quick to anger. The cook will smile and be happy to see you tomorrow. Don’t worry.”
Catrin and Bronwyn were true to their words about Emmet. He looked pleased to see me the next morning and no one seemed to mind or care that I had broken a plate. I had survived a rite of passage on the ship. Now I had proven my commitment to their rules and I felt even more like a member of the crew.
I earned my place on the crew with my work swabbing the deck, cleaning the dishes and pumping the bilge. Now that I was comfortable on board, it was decided that I should be given combat training. I was to train with the ship’s weapons master, Master Clyde. He was a short, strong man, who seemed to have seen too much fighting in his day. He was absolutely covered with battle scars that made him look especially dangerous. The scars seemed to be from knife wounds and showed on his face and bald head. I could see that his arms were covered with them as well. I was curious as to how he got them. Master Clyde was wearing a tight, short-sleeved, saffron-colored shirt underneath a dark brown vest, with billowy saffron pants that were tight at the ankles. He wore soft brown shoes that adhered to his feet as he fought.
I was first taken to watch Master Clyde spar with another shipmate and while I had never been taught to fight, I was familiar with combat on the mainland, from watching contests in my town. However, Master Clyde’s techniques were nothing I’d ever seen before Catrin had brought me here. Master Clyde was a whirlwind. He was pushing his opponent back with his hands at first. Using his wrists to block attacks that he did not simply dodge, and then he was standing on his hands and using his feet to attack. His billowy pants gave him the advantage in that they hid his legs, so that his opponent did not know what attack he was planning. Master Clyde moved from his hands to his feet in a constant motion, never backing off from his assault on his sparring partner until his opponent had moved out of the fighting area.
I was amazed and asked Catrin. “What are they doing? I’ve never seen fighting like this before.”
“This is the fighting style of Master Clyde’s people. He is from the Shim’ba lands where they use hands and feet in the fight. No one has ever beaten him in a fair fight. He made enemies in Shim’ba and they drugged him and put him tied up as a slave on a ship. When he awoke, he managed to break his bonds and fought his way out onto the deck. He took on an entire slave ship crew, but once he had defeated them all he realized that he didn’t know how to sail a ship. Captain Gawain was out looking for the slave ship to raid and take on board as many former slaves as wanted to be rescued. When she found them all of the slaves were free on the ship, but they were badly dehydrated from being on the open sea for so long. The captain took them on board, had Helwif Prudence get them healthy and then we taught them to sail. Master Clyde has been the weapon’s master and our main combat trainer ever since.”
“Does Captain Gawain always go looking for slave ships?”
“When she knows of them. She doesn’t like to see anyone shackled and doing work as an animal. She empties the ships of the gold they have left, but mostly for the slaves. They make good pirates. They are loyal and fierce.”
Master Clyde began my lessons the next day. The traditional fighting dress of the Shim’ba warrior consists of the billowy saffron pants and a tight shirt, called the cumo. The tightness of the shirt works well for the female fighters because it binds the breasts close to the chest and away from swinging arms and legs. I was given the trainees white shirt to wear with some white practice pants. Since my breasts were already quite full the tightness of the cumo was comforting to me. So much so that I asked Master Clyde if I could make it part of my regular outfit. I liked how it made me feel, that I would always be prepared for a fight.
I was fitted for my cumos by one of the ship’s leather workers, who also had basic tailoring skills. At the time he also measured my hips, arms and hands for some reason that neither he nor Master Clyde would tell me, but I figured I would find out soon enough. I had enough to occupy my mind with the training from Master Clyde.
As I stepped into the training room after changing into my battle gear Master Clyde approached me with such a look of intensity that I felt my knees start to go weak with nerves. The battle scars that covered his arms and face made him look even more intimidating with his stern face and strange clothes. I had never been taught to fight and I was worried that he might take this first lesson to throw me about and show me up. Instead he shouted, “CELIA! SIT!” And I sat down hard and fast and without grace. Clyde then shouted, “CELIA! STAND!” I stood up, but it was difficult to use my arms as he was standing just inches from me and I couldn’t get a good push up from the floor with my arms.
“This is the first thing you need to learn, how to sit and stand without using your hands or leaning over like a tree bent by the wind. I want you to spend the next hour practicing sitting and standing like this.”
He then sat down on the deck as if he was floating downward and his legs just tucked right beneath him, his scars straining against his rippling muscles. He stood again in much the same manner. As if a string was pulling him up from the ground as he was unfolding.
“This is where a fight can be won and lost and where a life on the ship can be forfeited. You must have complete control of your body. You must be able to have control of your legs before you can have control of a weapon.”
After an hour of practice I did not feel that I would be able to sit or stand ever again. I could barely move my legs and my hair had come out of the leather tie. I was grateful that my lessons would be at the end of the day so that I could go to bed quickly and the rest of the crew would not see my pain. I was also glad that I had been strengthening my body by swabbing the deck. I knew that I would not have lasted through this first lesson without my new, stronger muscles.
As I was walking to the kitchen I went past the Helwif’s rooms. A young man who I had not met called to me.
“Hello, Celia. You seem to have weights on your legs. They aren’t moving as easily as I have seen while you swab the deck.” He said with a wry smile and a gleam in his bright black eyes.
I could tell he was teasing me. I was so tired from working with Master Clyde that I didn’t want to talk to anyone, let alone anyone who found my pain funny; however, I did want to know his name.
“And you are?” I asked with a tired expression on my face.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just trying to be funny. My name’s Rex. I’m Helwif Prudence’s magical apprentice and I can see you’re in pain. Would you like me to help?”
He looked genuinely friendly and kind, so I took his offer.
“I would love some help. What do you have to offer?”
“This is a powder to put into your ration of beer. This is just for tonight. It will dull the pain, but not take it away and you should be able to walk more easily in the morning. Let me know if you need more tomorrow night.” He said with a friendly smile.
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate your help.” And with that I headed up to dinner and back to my room.
I put the powder Rex had given me into my nightly beer ration and drank it down. The taste was bitter, but I fell asleep quickly. The next morning, I was amazed that I could get out of bed with relative ease. I would need to thank Rex.
I practiced sitting and standing with Master Clyde for an hour each night and an hour on my own every morning. As I did this I could feel my legs get stronger. I had only used my legs to walk to town, then to stay standing on the ship while I washed the deck, but this was different. I loved the way this made my body feel. I could feel the muscles in my legs. Parts of my legs felt alive in ways that they had not felt before.
Some nights, when I had a few minutes, I would sometimes sneak onto the helm to talk with the helmsperson on duty who was steering the ship and beg them to tell me about the gem stars. I knew that they used the stars to navigate, but I had never learned how to read them. Some of them were kind enough to help me find a few of the stars and show me where to find them using a compass.
They would take their direction from the navigator and I enjoyed finding the new bearing with the compass when they would turn the ship to follow the navigator’s orders.
One night I came down from the helm to find Captain Gawain, Catrin and Darab, the navigator, watching me. I quickly went up to ask them if I had done something wrong, but they just waved me off and continued to speak quietly to each other.
After a couple of weeks sitting and standing, Master Clyde had me move on to climbing the ships ropes. This was terrifying! I had never been high up before, let alone holding onto rough ropes to get there.
“Alright, Celia, now you need to learn how to climb the ropes. You cannot be a member of any ship’s crew without being able to climb. You will be a danger to us all and you will not be able to keep hold of a knife if you can’t keep hold of a rope.”
“But the rope is so rough. How do I keep it from cutting my hands?”
“You will start as all pirates of the Dragon Clan start, wearing gloves of dragon skin.”
“You kill dragons for this? I thought they were friends?”
Master Clyde shot me a disgusted look.
“The dragons we have on the island molt as they grow and they drop this skin. It is useful for us and of no use to them, so we make special items from it. Because the skin is both thick and malleable all the gloves worn by our clan are made from dragon skin.”
Master Clyde then presented me with the most beautiful gloves I’d ever seen. They were a deep purple with a blue and dark pink sheen and they were long enough that they looked like they would fit up to my elbow.
“Celia, these gloves are precious and mark you as a member of the Dragon Clan.”
“Thank you, Master Clyde, I will wear them with honor.” I thought to myself, Wow! I’m a member of the Dragon Clan!
“These are to be worn at all times from now on. The dragon skin is tough and will protect your hands from cuts. You’ll still get bruises and callouses from your training, but these will help keep you from losing a finger.”
Master Clyde put the gloves in my hands and I gazed at them in wonder. I took in the sheen, running my hands over the skin that felt only slightly bumpy, but really strong. I put them on my hands and then fumbled when I tried to lace them up so they fit my forearms. Master Clyde took over the lacing with a small smile.
The gloves were the most beautiful piece of clothing I had ever received. They fit perfectly going all the way up to my elbow and would protect my entire lower arm.
“Ok, now that you have your gloves, you are to climb the ropes to the top of the main mast and down twice a day. I will know if you skip a practice and you will be punished. This is not for fun.”
“Yes, Master Clyde.”
I began to climb up the main mast, trembling so much it looked like I was trying to fly off of the ropes. I was terrified. I’d never been allowed to climb something so high and now that I was I wondered why that had ever seemed like a good idea. Kitty would panic when I climbed to the top of a particularly tall boulder. I told myself as I climbed that I just needed to focus on where to put my hand next and not how high I was up over the sea.
Although I was frightened of the height, I was surprised at how easily I was able to climb up the ropes. My long days of swabbing decks and training with Master Clyde had really strengthened my hands and arms.
When I was halfway up the rigging I foolishly decided to look down and I froze. I couldn’t move. I was half way up the rigging and I knew that I would fall to my death if I tried to get down, or fall to my death if I continued to climb up. Either way, I was too high up for my own good and I should not be here.
As soon as Master Clyde realized I was frozen with fear he was next to me. How he could have climbed so fast was beyond me, it seemed as if I had been climbing for hours just to reach this point. His bald head came into my view first and then his face.
Master Clyde started talking to me in a soothing voice I’d never heard from him. “Ok, Celia, keep climbing, you can do this. DO NOT LOOK DOWN!”
As he said this I looked down and started to cry.
“Crying is ok, but you must continue to climb.”
“My hands hurt and my arms are tired.” I complained.
“I know, but you must climb. It is simply what you must do.”
I knew this was true because he wouldn’t let me fail to complete my task, so I started to climb.
Master Clyde was climbing right next to me. “Look up!” He gave the order and I looked up.
I wasn’t far from the top. As I got closer to the top a huge rush of accomplishment overcame me.
“I’m almost to the TOP!” I shouted, but then, one of my hands let go and I started to swing backward.
Whomp! Master Clyde had been right behind me and he grabbed me by the cumo and lifted me back onto the ropes.
“This is another reason we wear the cumo!” He said with a smile. “Do not get too excited. A warrior remains calm in the face of victory. Remember, you still need to climb back down.”
Thinking about climbing down I started to freeze up again; my arms would no longer move.
Master Clyde noticed immediately. “You have the strength in your arms. You have been training with me for more than a month now. You can do this. Now get to the top and let’s get back down to the deck.”
I started to climb up again under the power of his voice. Slowly I reached the top, but I was wise enough now not to be too elated. I took this minor victory inside and I started back down.
“Do not look down, just look up and climb down. You know that the footholds are there in the ropes. Just know this and move backward.”
I took Master Clyde’s advice and moved slowly backward. As I started to get closer to the deck I wanted to look down. Just one peek wouldn’t hurt.
“DO NOT LOOK DOWN!” Master Clyde shouted. “Know that the deck has not moved. Have faith in yourself. You will know when you are at the bottom.”
And I did. I had been watching those ropes while I had been swabbing and I realized at once when I was close enough to jump to the deck. My legs, now strong from exercise, caught me and held me up.
“Well done, Celia!” It was Catrin.
She had been watching me as I climbed. I realized that many of the pirates had been watching me. They all wanted to know if I would fail, if Master Clyde would fail in teaching me.
“Well, Master Clyde, another one up and down in one piece. I am astonished at your rate of success,” said Captain Gawain with the hint of a smile.
“Thank you, captain.” Master Clyde said with pride.
The captain was there! She was well matched with her beautiful red dragon they both looked fierce and powerful. I was thinking about backing away from the intensity of the captain when the large dragon Gae Bulg came over to give me a sniff and flew back to sit on the captain’s shoulders.
“You have the blessing of Gae Bulg!” Captain Gawain said with a smile and a sparkle in her brown eyes.
The pirates on the deck cheered my accomplishment and I saw Rex standing at the top of the stairs watching me with his glossy black hair ruffled by the breeze. Bronwyn came over to congratulate me on getting to the top of one of the masts.
“You do know that was the shortest mast?” she said with a smirk.
“Thanks so much for your heartfelt congratulations.”
“Really, Celia. You did well. It’s scary to climb to the top and you don’t seem like you come from a place with tall mountains,” Bronwyn said as her braid was tousled by the increasingly strong wind.
“No, there are no mountains in or near Queenston. Although I can’t imagine Kitty would let me near them if there were. She would have a fit if I stood on a chair! It was a challenge to overcome her fears as well as my own sometimes.”
“That I can understand, my mother is a landlubber and frightened of the sea. She was not happy with my decision to go out on a ship. She would have rather I stayed on Dragon Island with her, working with the dragons to ensure the islands safety.”
“How did you get her to let you go?”
“Well, that’s why I asked Emil to come with me. I knew that she would feel better if I had the companionship of a dragon and she trusts Emil.”
“She sounds like a wise and wonderful woman.”
“She is. I look forward to getting back to the island. I miss her and I miss the other dragons. I am still grateful to have Emil though.”
As we had been sitting on the deck talking Emil had moved himself so that he was lying in Bronwyn’s lap with his head resting on mine. We were both a bit surprised to realize that he was spanning us both as we got ready to stand up. The wind was getting stronger and we needed to get inside before a storm broke.
“Excuse us, Emil,” I said, “but we all need to go to dinner. Would you like to come with us?”
Emil looked up with a lazy smile, but as he was always hungry he didn’t make us wait. Emil was up and flying toward the galley with Bronwyn and I following closely behind. Watching Emil’s tail flowing along behind him I felt like a fish being led to dinner by a worm on a hook.
As I went to sleep that night to the sounds of the stormy sea I thought of my parents. Those people who I had rarely seen. I wondered if they were concerned about me or just irritated that I had taken time away from the estate. I didn’t miss them. I missed Kitty, Cook and Bitsy some, but I would miss them either way. Kitty would never leave the mainland and I’d been too curious to stay.