The End of the Golden Age, by Tyler Young

When his surrogate father, the pirate captain Gentleman Jim, is murdered, Fenton inherits an incredible power and learns a fantastic secret! Can Fenton defeat the vicious pirate lord who killed his father and save the Caribbean from a terrible fate?!

The Golden Age of Piracy spawned many fantastical tales, but none more amazing than the story of how it ended. It’s a shame that none but I remember it, and one I hope to remedy.

It all started forty years ago, when I was but a lad serving under the great Gentleman Jim, the finest pirate ever to sail the Caribbean. The day everything changed began like any other. We were closing in on a plum prize, a merchant ship laden with fine fabrics and spices. Jim handed me the spyglass—he didn’t need it, thanks to Jolo’s magic—and let me watch as the merchant’s crewmen fell over themselves in terror.

“Panic,” the Captain told me, “is a pirate’s greatest weapon.” He slapped my back with an oar-sized hand. “And if that doesn’t work,” he told me, “a cannon will serve.” Before I could say a word, Jim called for Jolo, who soared from the parrot’s nest—we had no crow’s nest on the Breeze—and landed on the thick leather patch on the Captain’s jacket. She was beautiful: feathers so red they seemed too bright for this world, wings fringed with gold and blue, and bright knowing eyes. Jolo cried her challenge, and the Breeze surged forward.

We pulled aside our quarry, and before we could even sink our hooks, the Captain had already boarded her. I thought the crew might be cowed simply by the sight of him, cloaked in St. Elmo’s fire, Jolo whirling above him. But their captain was bold, and their cargo was rich. So they fought.

They were well armed—this was the age of piracy, after all—and might have made a go of it, but no one could stand against Gentleman Jim. He was everywhere at once, cutlass dripping blood, flintlock firing again and again. I managed to scrabble over the rail and smash the nose of one of the sailors with the butt of my sword before their captain saw the red writing on the wall and surrendered.

Now, Gentleman Jim, he was as good as his name. When he took a ship, he’d ask the crew if their captain had treated them well. If they said aye, he’d allow the former captain to keep his sword and personal effects. If not, Jim’d send the man off missing vital parts of his anatomy. Jim bragged that the threat of his knife had done more for the common sailors of the Caribbean than any reform or maritime law.

That day, Jim had cause to sharpen his knife. But before he got down to business, Jolo cried out, announcing that another ship emerging from the fog.

“Man o’war!” cried the bosun, and my pulse quickened.

But our farsighted Captain shook his head. “That’s Nate’s ship.”

We all relaxed. Nate the Red was a member of the Brotherhood, one of twelve pirates blessed with a Parrot. We left the merchants trussed and returned to the Breeze. As the Scourge pulled alongside us, Jim doffed his cap and shouted, “Ahoy, Nate!”

Nate, with Dillet perched on his shoulder, glowered back in silence. His response to his pirate brother’s greeting was a full cannonade. The unexpected blast threw me to the deck. By the time I came to my senses and clambered back to my feet, Nate and Jim were already at each other, lightning crackling along their swords. The sky had darkened, and an eldritch wind had begun to howl.

I drew my sword and moved to aid my Captain, but an enormous corsair blocked my path. The man had fifty pounds on me, but I had the speed of youth. I rolled underneath his killing swing and thrust three feet of steel up between his legs. The wind was blowing hurricane strong, but I could still hear the man scream.

I clambered to my feet, looking for Jim. The Breeze was listing, black smoke pouring from her hold, and ball lightning crawling along her decks. I swiveled my head and finally caught sight of the captains, now battling among the ratlines, seeming to dance from rope to rope with impossible grace. Another broadside must have hit us then, for a piece of the deck sprang up and struck me in the face, knocking me to my back. The last thing I remember seeing was Jolo and Dillet, tearing at each other as they spun through the maelstrom above.

 

I woke, floating on a jagged plank of wood, to the sound of Jolo singing. I couldn’t understand her words, but I recognized the song as a lament. I knew then that Jim was dead.

He’d been my captain for eight years, ever since my mother died. More than a captain, really, as he always seemed to have a soft spot for me, too, teaching me navigation and history, swordplay and seamanship. So I feel no shame telling you that I sobbed until Jolo finished her dirge.

Then she tottered down our little raft and stared at me intently. She was hurt, I could see. Her feathers were broken and askew, and her legs were scored by long cuts. She spread her wings and, for the first time, flew to my shoulder. I winced as her talons bit into me, strong as a vice.

“Fenton” she called, but not the rasping voice I’d heard before. Now, her voice was melodious and warm to my ears. And she did not merely squawk simple words and phrases. To me, Jolo spoke.

She told me there was land two times over the horizon to the east, and she showed me how to call a gentle tide to pull us that way. It was a power I had never felt before, as if I were bending the very sea to my will. We had no sail, of course, so our little raft didn’t reach land until nightfall.

During our slow cruise, Jolo told me many things. She taught me how to use her power to calm the waves and call the winds, how to see over the horizon and how to conjure fog from ocean air. Strangest of all, Jolo told me the history of her kind, and the deal they struck 50 years ago with the pirate kings. The Parrots granted the twelve worthiest pirates untold powers, and in return the pirates swore to keep the invaders—the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, all of them—out of the Kalite sea, the great triangular stretch of ocean a hundred miles to the east of Barbados.

I was reeling. Jim had never even hinted at such a bargain. But one question still burned in my mind. I was but a green lad of fourteen, and any pirate would’ve given his sword arm for her, so I asked, “why me, Jolo?”

“Don’t you know, Fenton?” she answered. “He was your father. He suspected he was, and that’s why he took you on when your mother died. But whether it was true by blood it became true in time.”

 

I’d like to say that I set off straightaway to hunt down the cur that ambushed my father. But I’ll tell you true: I never even considered it. You may think me a coward. And if so, I think you a fool. I was only a boy and new to my powers.

But I still had to live. So Jolo and I made for Tortuga and joined up with One-Eyed Bart’s crew. Jolo did her best to stay out of sight, but a creature like her was tough to hide. And since I couldn’t do a tenth of what Jim could with Jolo’s power, I was a target. One night, three scoundrels jumped me, hoping to take Jolo for themselves. To this day I wonder how they planned to split a Parrot three ways. Jolo blinded one, and I gutted another. We let the third take his chances with the sharks.

Others tried the negotiated approach. One-Eyed Bart, who had always lusted after a Parrot of his own, offered me a small fortune for Jolo. When I laughed at that, he offered me my own ship, any one I cared to name. I tried to explain that I couldn’t part with her any more than I could cut out my heart and sell it at the market. He nodded as if he understood and gave me good work aboard his ship. He was decent captain, I’ll admit. But I could always feel his one eye on my back.

As Jolo and I grew closer, my powers grew. It was as if I woke up one morning and discovered a limb I’d never noticed before. I could flex it, strengthen it, strike with it. Soon I was able to dance along the ratlines and send lightning crackling down my sword, same as Jim. But strain as I might, I couldn’t call the winds to favor the Strumpet, much to Bart’s ire. When I finally asked Jolo why, she said simply, “It’s not your ship.”

 

At the end of a particularly lucrative maraud, I parted ways with Bart, taking my share in the form of one of the ships we’d captured. I rechristened her the Panic. To my surprise, three of the hands from Bart’s crew joined me. I picked up the rest in Tortuga.

The next two years were the best of my life. With each passing day, my bond with Jolo deepened, until I was always aware of what she was feeling. And we became the terror of the Spanish and British navies, capturing more than 100 merchant ships.

Now, a prudent man would have planned for the future and buried a few chests full of loot during those years. But I was young and thought I’d have Jolo on my shoulder forever, so I frittered it all away on clothes, wine, and women. Mostly women.

Looking back, I should’ve realized sooner that something was amiss. When I had sailed the Kalite Sea with Jim, we encountered one of the other twelve Parrotships every few weeks. In my first few months as captain, however, we hailed another member of the Brotherhood only every few months. And soon not at all.

On more than one occasion during those golden years, I sailed into a free port that had been entirely burned out. At the time, I thought it was one of the naval powers, punishing the Brotherhood in the only way they could, by striking at the cities under our protection. If only.

 

I was unwinding in Cerie’s Cathouse, regaling Meg and Jess with tales of my latest exploits when I heard cannon fire from the harbor. Surprised, I pushed the girls away and sprang to my feet. Through the window I saw smoke rising from the harbor, but I couldn’t see the source. This was a free port, and they paid their tribute, so I wasn’t going to tolerate any upstart pirate trying his hand there.

I was pulling on my boots when I heard the brothel’s front door crash open. The rickety building shuddered under the impact, and then a whole chorus of women began to scream. Buckling on my sword belt, I peered out through a peephole and saw a sight I’ll never forget. I could see it was Nate, but he was something else entirely, enveloped in swirling, dancing lights of every color, so bright it hurt to look at him.

And he was covered in Parrots.

Some sat on his shoulders and some on his hat. Those who couldn’t find a perch circled overhead. But every one of them had a chain around its neck and each chain was tethered to a thick iron ring sewn to Nate’s jacket. He moved to one of Cerie’s girls and put his sword to her throat.

“You, girl,” he growled, “where is Fenton?”

I didn’t wait to hear her reply. With Jolo on my shoulder, I jumped out of the fourth-story window and glided to the ground. Without looking back, I pelted toward the harbor. I should’ve put things together sooner, of course, but I stopped dead in my tracks when the water came into view, and I saw the smoldering wreckage of the Panic. My home was gone.

But I had no time to mourn for my ship or her crew. Behind me, I could hear shots and screams and general pandemonium, so I commandeered a small but fleet-looking merchant ship. Seeing Jolo on my shoulder, the crew leapt overboard willingly enough, but the plump young merchant captain strutted up to me and protested.

“My house has paid the fee, sir! How profitable do you think piracy will be if you’ve no one to trade with?”

I was in no mood to debate legalities with some be-silked merchant princeling. “You’ve got it wrong,” I growled. “I’m buying your ship. See, I’m selling you back your life. That’s quite a bit more valuable than all of this timber, rope, and cloth, aye?”

The merchant went white as the sheets and started to edge away.

“But just so there are no hard feelings, here’s a gratuity.” I pressed one of my rings—easily worth twice the value of the entire ship—into the man’s hand. He jumped overboard with a smile on his face.

 

“What in God’s name is happening?” I asked, once Jolo and I were safely on the sea. “Why were the other eleven helping Nate?”

In answer, she let out a heartbroken cry, and I caught a flash of her mind. Enslavement. Despair. Misery.

“He’s broken them somehow,” she said. “They’re slaves or near enough.”

“How could he do that?”

Her reply was coldly furious. “He shouldn’t have been able to.” She screamed in fury. “Dillet.”

“His first Parrot?”

“She was always arrogant, always thought she knew better. And she’s always been cruel. She chose Nate as her man all those years ago. She must have seen a glimpse of herself in him.”

I looked back at the harbor. Enormous columns of smoke were rising from the city, but I saw no ships in pursuit.

“Can we—“

“No, Fenton. You are young, and my magic is strong. But against all of the others—even if they’re resisting Nate as best they can—no, it’s hopeless.”

“So what? Do we flee, leave the Caribbean?”

Jolo shook her sleek head. “No, at least I cannot. I am a creature of this place. If I leave, I would become dumb, and our power would die.”

I smashed a barrel into splinters with my boot. “Then what, Jolo? I’ll not lose you to him and see you chained!”

“We have but one choice. We sail for Kaliton.”

She told me then what is now common knowledge to all of you now, I suppose. In the heart of the Kalite Sea sits a lush tear-drop-shaped island. Its beauty is incomparable, or at least it was four decades past. The Kalitens, a wise and gentle people, gifted in song, craft, and art, have lived there since the dawn of time. They remained there undiscovered, not by some accident of cartography, but by the will of their guardians, the Parrots.

“We’ll sail there,” Jolo said. “And tell of the horrible crime we saw.”

“To what end?”

“Fenton, I am not the last of my kind free of Nate’s domination. Do you think we left our people totally defenseless?”

“How many—enough to stop Nate?”

“There were thirteen left behind when I flew off to join Jim.  But we left only the old and the young. I do not know how many are still alive.”

My fortunes had reversed, I thought. I started to pace the deck, planning the brutal revenge we would take.

“Aye, but surely some of them have bonded to warriors now, and when you tell them what Nate has done, they’ll join us.”

Jolo laughed. “If our people were warriors, why would we have bonded to the pirates at all? When the Kaliten bond, it is not for power; it’s for love alone, and for the joy of art, song, and story. No warriors will come to your aid. It will be up to you and me and whatever power we can draw from any of my brothers and sisters I can convince to join us.”

My stomach plummeted. I wanted to rage at the foolishness of a peaceful people, but what was the use? What other choice did we have? I nodded to Jolo.

“Then we go.”

Jolo flew to the wheel. A greenish lightning spouted from her crown, ran down her body, and spread over the entire ship. The air before us seemed to rip apart, from the water to the clouds above, like a curtain being pulled. Behind that veil, I saw another expanse of unbroken ocean, no different than what I saw in every other direction. But when we sailed through that aperture, I felt as though I were drenched in freezing water. Yet when I reached down to pat my chest, I was bone dry.

 

We sailed on through the night and sighted Kaliton at dawn. The island was more beautiful than any I had ever laid eyes upon: a perfect green jewel circumferenced by a white beach. I was so struck by the beauty of the place—I could feel Jolo’s heart thrilling at the sight of it—that I didn’t even notice the five Parrots flying out to meet us.

For a wonderful moment, I felt hope. And then a shadow fell over my ship—a shadow darker and more complete than could be cast by any cloud. I looked up and—call me a liar if you dare—I saw Nate’s three-masted square-rigger, wrapped in a whorl of golden light, descending from the clouds. My mouth fell slack.

I stood watching, dumbstruck, as the warship slowly came about in midair and presented her broadside. I only snapped back to reality when twenty cannons fired at once. Many of the balls fell wide, but enough struck home. The barrage shattered the mainmast and tore five holes in the deck. I couldn’t tell if we’d been hit below the waterline, but I knew we couldn’t survive another salvo.

I glared at the Scourge hanging there in the air and screamed, “Coward!” at the top of my lungs. “Too afraid to face me man to man, Nate?”

He could’ve sunk me from the air easily enough. But the arrogant bastard landed right next to me. He strutted over to the rail, wearing the devil’s own grin, and waved a cheerful hello. There wasn’t a crewman in sight on the deck of his ship, only the enslaved Parrots.

I’m not sure what I would’ve done next if Jolo had given me a choice. She didn’t. A beautiful red blur hurtled straight for Nate, and I could feel the fury coursing through her. I leapt aboard the Scourge behind her, hit the deck, and rolled to my feet. Nate seemed more amused than threatened.

“You’re going to fight me, boy? Well, you’ve already done me a great service by leading me to this place. Now you can entertain me in your last moments!”

He lunged at me so fast I scarcely even saw him move. I barely got my blade up in time to ward off his slashing attack, and then his boot was in my belly, sending me sprawling to the deck.

“Pathetic,” he sneered. But at that moment, five Parrots from the island landed on the Scourge. I don’t know if Jolo explained the situation to them somehow or if they could sense the evil in Nate. But for whatever reason, I suddenly felt their power surge through me. It was intoxicating, overwhelming, exhilarating; I felt as if I was thrumming with a power that I had to release. I hurled myself at Nate, moving like lightning, striking faster than a cobra, stronger than I’d ever been before.

Now, Nate still had twice the Parrots, but I was younger and rage was flowing through me. If it had stayed a sword duel, I think I might have even gotten the better of him. But when I started to press my advantage, Nate pointed his hand at me and hurled a bolt of lightning into my chest. It nearly killed me. I was picked up, hoisted to the very top of the Scourge’s tallest sail, and slammed down against her deck. I hit so hard that I crashed through into the cannon deck below.

My heart was stuttering, and all I could hear was a high-pitched ringing. But then Jolo was on my shoulder, amid the dust and smoke, and for the first time I could truly hear her thoughts, not just sense her feelings. She told me what I already knew in my bones: we can’t win.

“I know,” I croaked. “But what can we do?”

Fire the cannon at the island, Fenton. Now!

I could feel the desperation, the panic in her mind. I shook my head in confusion, and then the cannons and decks vanished, and I saw the heart of the island, a sacred place, a clearing with many benches facing an enormous pillar of stone, covered with carvings of parrots.

Destroy it, she begged, please. Before it’s too late.

I looked into her eyes and understood what she was asking. I nodded.

Just as I heard Nate land behind me, I pressed my flintlock to the nearest cannon’s breach and fired. I ignored Nate stalking toward me, sword tracing tight little circles of anticipation in the air. I had eyes only for Jolo. Together we saw the cannonball arcing through the air and pushed it, nudged it, guided it. Nate raised his sword to strike, and I saw the ball pound home, smashing the pillar.

And then all was noise and fury and winds that made a gale seem tame.

I woke on the beach in agony. My head was splitting, and I was covered in burns and cuts, but that wasn’t the worst of it. I felt an emptiness in my soul that I couldn’t understand and still can’t express. I looked around wildly for Jolo. Instead, I saw Nate, lying motionless on the sand.

I reached for my belt, but my sword was gone, as was my knife and flintlock. I instinctively called on Jolo’s power but felt no strength flow into me. I tried not to think about what that meant and staggered forward. Halfway there, I stopped and picked up a conch shell. When I reached him, he seemed almost pitiable. His body was emaciated; his beard was wild, with bits of food stuck in it. His eyes were open, but they were staring sightlessly. I brought the conch down on his right eye, thinking of Jim, the Breeze, the Panic, and Jolo. I didn’t stop until his face was a red waste.

I walked away from my father’s killer, finally avenged, and flopped down in the shade of a palm tree. A moment later, Jolo landed on a branch above me. I called out to her, but she just stared back. Finally, she flew down and landed on my shoulder.

“Fenton!” she said in a high squawking voice.

And that’s the only word she’s ever said since.

 

You know what happened next. Without the Parrots, the pirates couldn’t keep the Spanish and the British out. Soon the pirates were branded and hanged, and Kaliton was “civilized” just like the rest of the islands. They’re better off than they would’ve been under Nate. I know that much is true, or at least that’s what I tell myself. But the Golden Age was over.

As for me, I’ve cared for Jolo these last forty years, hoping she’d come back to me but knowing she wouldn’t. Her feathers turned all white last winter. She died this morning. And now that I’ve told our story I think I’ll join her.

Tyler’s writing has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction. When he is not writing, he is usually at a zoo or museum with his wife and two young children. Follow him @Tyler_A_Young.

Advertisements