A proper decrepit crew they were; a congregation of thugs, thieves and murderers. Not one of them it seemed had been privy to a good wash before they had set sail, yet most of them were in high spirits as they swigged their rum and sang their shanties while the ship bobbed up and down on the waves of the rowdy sea.
Among the brutes on board was a young fellow who stuck out like a man who had entered the roughest pub in town and ordered naught but a water. His name was Cuthbert, and aside from his elegant, clean look and the lack of missing teeth or eyes, his shipmates knew he was no pirate just from the way he spoke.
‘”Yes”, he says,’ said one pirate. ‘”Yes”! I told him, I says “Matey, y’come aboard a pirate ship and it’s “aye”, not “yes.”’
‘What did ee say?’ asked another pirate.
‘He says “Oh, right, yes, of course.” I says “It’s aye! Not yes!” He says “Yes! Aye! Aye aye!” but in that posh voice o’ his, savvy?’
But it wasn’t just the way he talked or the way he looked that gave away his lack of pirating experience; Cuthbert was also very unknowledgeable about the workings of a ship. He had been tasked with, and had failed at, setting the sails, cooking meals, and even swabbing the decks. With each task he had somehow shown a deep lack of competency which often ended with someone else taking over duties for him.
Cuthbert’s oddity was first noticed when Captain John Crow called his first crew’s meeting. There had been an intense anxiety in the air; the captain was a man feared and renowned. It was said that he had sailed from the world’s end itself and through the fiery seas of Abalon. Tales were told of his fights with the fiercest of pirates and the most monstrous of sea creatures. It was said that even the heartiest of pirates would stand before him and crumble in fear at the first look of his scorn.
Cuthbert laughed at him.
He had laughed towards the end of Crow’s speech. He had them all lined up on deck and they all stood as upright as they could manage (some of them had crippling injuries from their years of fighting) and most of them trembled as the captain walked up and down the deck, eyeing them all intently.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘It seems a right crew of bilge sucking, scurvy dog, sons of biscuit eaters we have here. Do any of you scallywags know what the purpose of our voyage is?’
Nobody spoke. It seemed that none were brave enough even to admit that they didn’t know where they were going, or what they were going to do when they got there.
‘No, I didn’t think so,’ Captain Crow said. ‘I’ll lay it to ye all bare, lads. We go to seek the Whale’s Jewel.’
There were gasps from the pirates lined up on deck.
‘The eye of heaven!’
‘The eternal beauty!’
‘The jewel of eternity!’
Cuthbert said: ‘Sorry, what?’
Captain Crow eyed him. Cuthbert trembled slightly.
‘What’s yer name, boy?’ the captain enquired.
‘Cuthbert, sir,’ he saluted. This earned looks of puzzlement from the other pirates.
‘Put that hand down!’ Captain Crow shouted. ‘How is it ye’ve never heard o’ the Whale’s Jewel?’
‘I’m new to this sailing business,’ Cuthbert said. ‘If you please, what is this jewel?’
‘It’s the jewel of immortality!’ one of the pirates enthused.
This was where Cuthbert chuckled. Captain Crow looked at him with fury in his eyes. ‘Something funny, lad?’
‘Oh, come on!’ Cuthbert said. ‘You don’t believe in things like that, do you? It’s a proper fairy tale!’
There was gasps all down the line of pirates. They stared open mouthed as Captain Crow advanced slowly to Cuthbert. He approached ever closer to Cuthbert’s face as he spoke. ‘I suppose you think you’re funny, lad? Mark me words, a landlubber like you is sure to be feedin’ the fishes should he not take this very seriously. I’ll be lookin’ to see the look on yer face as the mouth of the great whale opens to swallow us in our search for the jewel.’
Cuthbert had been holding in his laughter. But this was too much, he now snorted in the captain’s face.
‘WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS SO FUNNY!?’ Captain Crow boomed.
‘Sorry!’ Cuthbert said, still laughing. ‘Sorry, do you think there’s some big whale somewhere that’s going to let us, what? Sail the ship into it’s mouth so we can go searching for this… jewel of infinite life or whatever? Oh, pirates! You are a right old funny bunch!’
‘Right!!’ the captain yelled. ‘Put him in the scuppers with the hose pipe on him! Let’s see how he likes the cold water in his face for a bit!’
Needless to say, Cuthbert didn’t enjoy his punishment, and he tried much harder to contain his laughter whenever the whale or the jewel were mentioned again.
Two weeks into the journey, they found the whale.
Cuthbert could not believe his eyes. His face was the joy that was worth Captain Crow’s wait. ‘Ha haaarr!!’ he cried. ‘Who’s laughing now, dog!?’
The whale was bigger than any creature that Cuthbert thought physically possible. It emerged from the sea and half of the creature was now in the open, it’s greyish body dropping enough water from it to cause large waves to stream across the ocean.
‘Full speed ahead!’ Captain Crow cried. ‘Straight into the belly o’ the beast!’
The ship sped straight towards the whale, which now opened its gargantuan mouth. Cuthbert screamed a high-pitched shriek as the ship plunged into the darkness of the beast’s inside, and its mouth closed behind them.
‘It’s dark in here, cap’n!’ a voice called.
‘Aye,’ the voice of Captain Crow. ‘Light up some lamps, lads.’
One was lit almost instantly. ‘I can’t even tell where on the ship that lamp is,’ came a voice.
Captain Crow replied: ‘It be the poop deck.’
There was a sound of someone muffling their laughter.
‘Cuthbert!!’ Crow yelled. ‘Is that you!?’
‘...No,’ came Cuthbert’s shaking voice. ‘How could I laugh in a situation like this?’
As more lamps were lit around the ship they could now see the great roof of the whale’s mouth. The ship appeared to still be floating on water and indeed moving forwards.
‘Lower the plank!’ Captain Crow commanded. ‘Lest ye want to sail straight down the whale’s throat!’
The ship stopped and Cuthbert joined the other pirates in simply standing and staring around at their surroundings. ‘Well, what now?’
Captain Crow walked towards Cuthbert. ‘Well, me lad, that’s where we need us a hero.’
Crow and the pirates laughed ominously as they eyed Cuthbert.
‘Who, me?’ Cuthbert said worriedly. ‘What do you need me for?’
‘You might have noticed we’re missing a jewel,’ Captain Crow said. ‘Legend has it that the jewel is kept by a mermaid who lives down there.’ He pointed to the large opening which was no doubt the throat of the whale. ‘It is said that only one man may enter, and when he comes back with the jewel in hand the whale’s mouth will open.’
‘Why me?’ Cuthbert pleaded. ‘I’m no… no swashbuckler!’
‘Har har!!’ cried a pirate. ‘So he does know how to speak like a proper pirate!’
Cuthbert continued to plead his case while the pirates grabbed him and harshly threw him overboard. When he emerged from the water he protested until the pirates began firing their muskets at him, at which point he swam straight down the throat of the whale.
The mermaid was the first thing he saw upon swimming upwards and finding open air. It was warmly bright down here; no doubt some magic spell. The mermaid sat upon a rock and was combing her hair and singing. Beside her, a large white jewel shone.
‘Erm… S’cue me,’ Cuthbert said shyly.
The mermaid looked at him. ‘Hello Cuthbert. I’ve been expecting you. My name is Esmeralda.’
Cuthbert swam to another rock and climbing on top of it, sat down upon it. ‘I’m here for the jewel.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Esmeralda said. ‘If you can solve my riddle you may have it.’
Cuthbert rubbed his hands together. He did like a good riddle. ‘Alright, let’s have it.’
The mermaid smiled. ‘What has scales, lives underwater and is sought by fishermen?’
‘Erm...’ Cuthbert said. Surly it wasn’t that easy. ‘Fish.’
‘That’s it!’ Esmeralda smiled. ‘You may take the jewel.’
‘...Fantastic!’ Cuthbert beamed. ‘But err… how do I get back up to the ship?’
‘A simple touch of the jewel will take you back,’ the mermaid said.
Without any more questions, Cutbert jumped into the water and swam over to Esmeralda's rock. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and placed a hand on the jewel.
When he arrived back on deck, the pirates erupted in cheers because they saw immediately that he was holding the jewel. Captain Crow stepped forwards and held out a hand.
‘Give it here, lad.’
Cuthbert shook his head. ‘No. It’s mine.’
The pirates gasped. Captain Crow looked furious. ‘What in the name of Mary mother of God do ye mean no!?’ The captain drew his pistol and pointed it at Cuthbert’s chest. ‘Hand it over now or so help me I’ll blast ye back down that Whale’s throat for good!’
‘Go then,’ Cuthbert said. He didn’t flinch.
Crow pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Cuthbert’s chest and bounced to the floor before rolling off the deck and into the water below.
‘What devilry is this!?’ Captain Crow boomed.
‘You never were too clever, were you John?’ Cuthbert grinned. ‘I’m holding the jewel, ye lily livered dog!’
Cuthbert now showed Captain Crow his left hand. Upon his index finger was a ring he knew the captain would recognise; it was a treasure he had gone after many years before. Cuthbert (although he wasn’t known as Cuthbert then) had got there before him.
‘The shape-shifter ring!’
‘Aye,’ Cuthbert said. ‘And ye can have it now if ye want!’
Cuthbert took off the ring and instantly he changed. He was much older now, with a great grey beard, a patch over one eye and a wooden leg. He looked more pirate than anyone else on board. He threw the ring at Captain Crow before producing a pistol of his own and shooting him dead.
‘Avast!’ Cuthbert yelled to the stunned crew. ‘There’s a new captain on board. Anybody have a problem with that?’
The crew all shook their heads rapidly and murmured softly.
‘Very well then. All watch on deck! Let’s get out in the open sea!’