Friday flash fiction – Shifting Jenny

The Shifting Jenny’s sails mumbled as the wind shifted southerly. Captain Annie Stagger glared at the horizon. “They’re close, mates,” she declared. “I can feel it in my bones.”

“Ahoy below,” shouted Davey-Girl from the tops, leaning out and pointing eagerly. “Ship ahead. It’s the Vanguard, or I’ll eat my bustle!”

First Mate Ursula Struck squinted through her looking scope at the distant schooner. “It’s her all right, Captain, no mistaking that figure. But something’s amiss.”

Captain Stagger rubbed her thumb along the bronze runes on the telescope’s casing, bringing the foredeck of the enemy ship into focus. Amidst the usual bustle of crewmen lashing stays, reefing sails and readying longboats, a hooded figure in blue robes had claimed a section of deck for himself. Swirls of sparkling red vapour obscured his gestures, but frenetic dancing and wild gesticulations told a grim tale. She muttered under her breath, “Sorcier!”

“All hands, prepare for boarding!” she shouted, and the command echoed throughout the ship. She snatched her cutlass from its scabbard and spoke the Iberian incantation to set it aflame.

Tabby Seagrave, the irritable lubber from Kingston who joined the crew to escape her cousin’s marriage proposal, scowled at the stabbing-dagger in her hand. “What do I need this for? Them French jack-tars are a mile off or more. We should run out the guns- Argh!”

By way of answer, a great claw punched through her from back to belly, slashing gizzards and blood across the Stinging Jenny’s timbers. Behind her, wraithed in red vapour, stood a beast from some jungle of nightmares. An insect of sorts, ten feet tall and covered in craggy plates. Its bony torso sprouted six segmented limbs, each ending in a jagged hook; its legs were rhinoceros stumps bound in glowing green manacles; its head looked like the skull of an enormous hunting-bird and dripped with glistening tar.

Before Tabby had breathed her last complaint, the great beast flung her overboard like a discarded fish head and whirled about for its next victim.

“Skirmishers!” called the First Mate, putting Smoking Lucy, her longarm, to her shoulder and pulling the trigger. With a cough of grey-green smoke, its muzzle spat a volley of sizzling pellets at the monstrous invader. They drilled hissing furrows into its rocky carapace.

The Jenny’s marines followed Struck’s lead, blasting the creature with acidic shots before leaping forward with swords drawn.

Captain Stagger couldn’t spare a moment to watch the fight. The starboard watch called out in alarm; the Caribbean swell was suddenly boiling with submerged activity. A moment later, great tendrils of sea kelp burst up from the depths. The dripping plants bristled with thorny barbs like a blackberry in spring. A few strands wrapped about the gunwales and held fast, causing all aboard to stumble at the sudden arrested momentum. Other strands scrabbled across the deck like scorched snakes and slithered up the masts. Cables frayed and severed at their passing; sails became ribbons.

“Axes!” The Captain need hardly have issued the command. At the first sign of the kelp, a crew of riggers and carpenter’s mates brandishing hatchets and axes fell upon the intrusive plants, chopping with a lusty determination.

“What next?” shouted Struck, as she parried an insectoid hook intent on her decapitation.

Captain Stagger spoke a handful of words in the lost language of Mu; they echoed back to her with hints of the future. “French magicians are so predictable,” she sighed. “Look to the timbers, lasses!”

True to the Captain’s warning, the Jenny shivered again as the deck planking, the spars and the masts all began to warp and groan. Within moments, every wooden surface was rough with bark, the cragged knobs of fresh oak bark in stark contrast to the usual smooth timber. Leaves began to sprout from the railings, and acorns clustered here and there among the rigging.

“Floramancy! They’re tickling our timbers back to how they once were!” growled Struck. She chopped one of the insect-creature’s legs away at the knee.

“Cheeky devils! I’d like to see them try that with me!” retorted Davey-Girl. She swung down on a springy green mainmast branch and popped a dagger into the insect-creature’s eye socket. As it howled blindly, the Skirmishers abandoned their weapons, grabbed the monster by one limb apiece and hastened it overboard, where it sank without ceremony.

The Jenny’s crew gave a cheer as they hacked the encroaching kelp away, though it was muted. The ship’s transformation had advanced; it now resembled nothing so much as an overgrown log cabin.

“She’ll not stay afloat long in this shape, poor girl,” reported Griss, the pilot, whose hands were raw and bloodied from wrestling thorny tendrils and hard bark.

“Time we showed these men of the Vanguard why we call her Shifting Jenny, eh girls?” To rousing encouragement, Captain Stagger hacked the bark off the helm to reveal a carved rune. She charged it with the breath of her lungs and the spit from her lips. It shone with glowing adoration. “Shift ye, Jenny, and take us hence, if you’d be so kind,” she told it. To her crew she added, “Eyes covered and arms at the ready, eh?”

Shifting Jenny’s spindle-and-chalice emblem burned with a sunset fire that expanded until it enveloped the crew. Each hid her face in the crook of one arm, while the other arm raised a weapon to strike.

When their vision cleared, the women stood before hapless French sailors, who clutched at their eyes, trying hopelessly to blink sunspots away. The Jennies made short work of those who didn’t offer immediate surrender. The French sorcier was among those whose temporary resistance saw him dropped into the sea, sans head.

Captain Stagger rubbed the newly-minted golden spindle-and-chalice plaque emblazoned on the forecastle door. “Ladies, meet the new Shifting Jenny, fifth ship of that name.” The crew roared and stamped the decks of their new home.

Across the Caribbean waters, a verdant jungle island bobbed where the old Jenny had been.

This week’s story is brought to you by International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which was celebrated (or at least, internet-celebrated) on Wednesday the nineteenth of September. I may not have had occasion to sound like a pirate this year, but I could at least feature them in a story.

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