Read Phoenix Rising Online

Authors: Bryony Pearce

Phoenix Rising (10 page)

Hiko was huddled as far away from him as possible. Toby could already see bruises blooming on his arms and legs, and his right eye socket shone with a swelling purple lump.

The guard had his head down and his collar up, trying to protect himself from the worst of the weather.

“They shouldn’t have left him out in this,” Toby growled.

“It works out better for us.” Polly wound her way into his shirt. “Even if the guard calls the alarm, who’ll hear him?”

Toby nodded.

“Are you sure about this?” Polly nipped his chest, but Toby ignored her and drew Nix.

Remaining low to the deck, Toby crept towards the cage. He got within a body length of the guard before the man looked up.

His bloodshot eyes widened and he jerked to his feet, reaching for the knife in his waistband. Toby leaped with Nix held above him.

The guard’s knife clattered on to the gangway as Toby crashed into him and he yelled, but Toby smashed Nix’s pommel into his mouth. Toby felt a crunch as teeth shattered under his fist then he grabbed the man and rolled him away from the cage. Polly landed on the cage, chirruping at Hiko.

The
Banshee
rolled again and Toby and the guard slid together, kicking and yelling, towards the rail. Toby wriggled an arm free and bashed the guard with Nix until his grip on Toby loosened. Then Toby jerked free, grabbed the muzzle of the cannon and kicked the guard as hard as he could towards the railing.

The guard clawed at Toby but, with a look of horror on his face, he crashed into the barrier in front of the cannon
and flew overboard. Toby’s eyes fixed on the guard’s with dawning horror as the man plummeted into the poisonous salt. Toby turned his face away as a car bonnet knocked him below the waves. The junk closed over the man’s head as though he had never been.

Panting heavily, Toby crawled back to Hiko’s cage. The boy was crouched in front of the door, his hands wrapped around the hinges, staring at Polly.

“The girl says they’re going to fire me from a cannon,” he said.

“No, they won’t.” Toby examined the door. It was secured with a thick brass padlock. “Do you know where the keys are?” he shouted.

“The girl has them.”

“Great.” If only he’d searched the girl before he’d left her. “What do you think, Polly?” He rattled the door. “Have I got time to take these hinges apart?”

Polly cocked her head at the screws. “Get moving. Lucky you’re still wearing your tool belt.”

Toby pulled up his shirt and selected a Phillips screwdriver. He squinted into the rain, and forced the shaft into the rusting head of the screw. Agonizingly slowly, the screw started to lift. “Can you get the rest out with your fingers, Hiko? I’ll start on the next one.”

Hiko struggled to get a grip on the wet metal, but
eventually wrapped his ragged shirt around his fingers and nodded.

Toby began to unscrew the next hinge. As he worked a crack of thunder boomed overhead. Toby paused, waiting for the lightning, but it was three counts before it lit up the deck.

“The storm’s passing.” His eyes widened.

“The crew will be back on deck soon.” Polly hopped up and down.

Toby shoved his screwdriver back in his belt and caught the screw with numb fingers. It slid between his thumb and forefinger, slicing the skin, but he ignored the stinging pain and forced it to turn. Hiko’s screw dropped on to the deck at the same time that Toby’s pulled free.

“Step back,” he said as he caught the sides of the door and started to lift.

The metal was slippery and almost too heavy for him. He groaned, certain he could hear booted feet behind him.

“Hurry, Toby,” Hiko whispered.

Toby nodded and strained. Finally the door lifted free, swivelled on the padlock and tilted to one side, leaving just enough room for Hiko to squeeze through.

Toby grabbed his hand and pulled him out, then started towards the nearest grappling hook that ran right over to the
Phoenix
’s pylon.

“Too late,” Polly shrieked, as the door to the bridge slammed open. “Hide.”

“We can make it,” Toby cried, but Hiko was already running towards the stern.

Toby reached for him and missed. The boy slid under a cannon and vanished into the shadows beneath. Toby darted after him. “I’m too big to get in there.” Polly flew at his side. “Where can I go?”

“There.” She indicated a box sticking out from the decking just a few steps away from Hiko’s hiding place. Toby slid into its shelter, just as someone began to shout.

Feeling desperately exposed he looked about him. He caught Hiko’s eye and gestured to the wire linking the two ships, but Hiko shook his head and shrank further into the darkness. Toby clenched his fists. He could make the rope if he ran, but he wouldn’t have time to drag Hiko with him.

“Find him!” The voice was Nell’s.

Hiko’s empty cage had given them away.

The
Banshee
’s wail started up and Toby clamped his hands over his ears. The sound was even worse on the host ship than it had been on the
Phoenix
.

Toby crouched as small as he could. He didn’t think it would take them more than a minute to find him, but somehow no one came near. They were searching around the trebuchet, the lifeboats, the sunken gangways, but no one thought to look on the bare stern.

The
Banshee
’s wail cut off and Toby pressed his back against the cupboard that sheltered him.

“What’s happening?” Toby whispered hoarsely.

Polly took a chance and glided to the rail. Toby held his breath until she returned.

“Your father is on his way over, on
Birdie
.”

Toby clenched his fists. “We can’t let him board.”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Polly muttered, as the
Banshee
’s winches were lowered. “We just have to hope
that he has a plan to get
off
this ship as well as on it.”

“He won’t leave without me. And Nell can’t hand me over. It’ll be a battle. He’ll be killed.” Tears filled Toby’s eyes. “What have I done?”

Polly crawled under his arm. “It isn’t over till the swan sings,” she whistled. Then she nudged him until he peered around the stoop.

“Look, most of the pirates are waiting for your father to arrive. They aren’t looking for you any more.”

“Great.” Toby pulled back again. “But now we can’t leave.” He leaned his head back. His bruised rib throbbed painfully. Toby listened, utterly miserable, as
Birdie
was hoisted over the side of the
Banshee
. Then Nell laughed as his father sprung on to the enemy’s deck.

“Where’s my son?” he roared.

“I take it you have the coordinates.”

“Of course. Where’s Toby?”

“You get him after I get the coordinates. Come with me to the bridge.” A pause. “Just you, Barnaby.”

“Not a chance.”

Toby groaned. Marcus was there, too.

“Where the captain goes, we go.”

Toby ground his teeth. “That’s right, Marcus, you tell her.”

“And what do you think you can do against my whole
crew?” Nell’s voice held a sneer.

“We don’t care.” Amit. Which meant that the captain had brought Ajay as well. Toby pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “You aren’t taking our captain off alone. He stays with us, or we go with him.” Their feet thudded on the gangway as they climbed from
Birdie
.

“Such loyalty. I see you haven’t managed to train your men to follow orders, Barnaby. Fine, come with me to the bridge …
all
of you.”

Amit, Ajay and Marcus – three pirates he thought of as brothers, and his father. Toby hoped that they had an excellent plan.

Silence fell on the deck of the
Banshee
and Toby clutched Nix on his knee. What was going on? Toby closed his eyes. While they were still inside, whatever the captain was doing had to be working. Didn’t it? He banged his head on the cupboard in despair, scraping his ear on what felt like a catch. Curiosity made him turn to see a door at his back, too small for a person to fit inside. “What’s this, Pol?” he whispered.

Her processor whirred. “On a previous Destroyer class it would have been part of the steering mechanism. I’m sure Nell has made adjustments, but I’d still bet that it has something to do with the steering.”

Toby’s eyes lit up. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I doubt it,” Polly snapped.

Toby flicked the screwdriver out of his tool belt and spun it around his fingers. Then he opened the small hatch and got to work.

The abrupt slamming of the bridge door made him freeze.

“I thought you felt more for your son than
this
,” Nell was shrieking. “You tried to fool
me
? Did you forget who I am?”

“I know who you are.” His father’s voice was low. He was trying to calm her down. “Don’t hurt Toby.”

Toby exhaled. They had a chance. If his father hadn’t brought the real coordinates, Nell might send him back to the
Phoenix
to fetch them.

“You thought you could have both your son
and
the solar panels,” Nell was saying.

Toby smiled grimly. “That’s right,” he muttered.

“Stupid, arrogant man.” Papers flew by Toby, bundling over the stern like pale birds. Nell had tossed them to the wind. “Were any of those pages real?”

“Some. You have to admit, it was worth a try.” His father was attempting to be charming. Toby decided to keep doing his own job as long as he could and switched from his screwdriver to his pliers.

“Not really.” Nell tapped a foot. “See, now I get to
destroy the
Phoenix
, kill your son and take the real coordinates from the ruins of your ship which, frankly, I was planning to do anyway.” Her voice was a scream as she addressed her crew. “Take them.”

“Oh no.” Toby looked up again, his fingers numb on his tools. On his shoulder Polly lurched from one foot to the other.

“Wait.” Marcus’s voice. “I’m a damn good forger, was nearly hanged for it when a client gave me up. How did you know the coordinates were fake?”

An uneasy quiet fell on Toby’s ears and he pocketed his pliers.

“Easy,” Nell answered eventually. “The coordinates you gave, the place you tried to tell me there are sunken solar panels? I’ve been there.” Toby heard, in her voice, the ghost of a long-buried memory. “There are no solar panels. There’s nothing there worth having at all. At least, not since the
Banshee
left.”

Toby shuddered.

Marcus grunted. “Damn. Can I show you something before your crew finishes us off?”

Toby leaned carefully around the side of the box. Marcus was handing Nell a flask.

“What’s this?” Liquid sloshed as Nell shook the offering. “You buying me a drink, sailor?”

“Not a drink. Open it.”

Toby pulled back and pictured Nell unscrewing the cap and putting the flask to her nose.

“Oil.” Greed was definitely there.

Toby smiled grimly. “I reckon I made enough mess, what do you say, Polly?” He sat back.

Polly peered over his shoulder. “Put the hatch back and they won’t even know why they can’t steer any more.”

“Right.” Toby closed the door carefully and screwed it shut.

“We hit lucky during a recent salvage operation.” His father was speaking now. “The oil is in barrels on the
Phoenix
. But there’s a lookout in the crow’s nest watching us. Anything happens and my second in command has orders to mix the oil with sand.”

“Clever.” Polly whistled and Toby nodded.

“You wouldn’t,” Nell gasped.

“We would.” The captain sounded smug. “Give me my boy back, send us on our way and I’ll make sure the barrels are sent over. I shouldn’t have tried to fool you. The oil is yours.”

Nell snorted. “Strangely, Barnaby, I don’t trust you. Go back to your
Phoenix
, send over the oil
and
the real coordinates. Then I’ll return your son. If you don’t, I’ll
have him thrown overboard. It’s a long drop from the deck of the
Banshee
.”

Toby listened as his father strode back towards
Birdie
. He could hear the frustration in the heavy thud of his father’s boots, but he felt a thrill of relief. As soon as
Birdie
launched, Toby and Hiko could run for the cable and rappel across to the
Phoenix
. They might yet get off the
Banshee
alive.

“Captain.”

Toby’s heart sank. It was the girl he had left in the sunken passageway: Nell’s daughter. “The boy in the cage isn’t Barnaby’s son. He’s an imposter, and—”

“An imposter,” Nell spat. “I suppose nothing on the
Phoenix
is what it seems, eh, Barnaby. Do you even have oil, or is this flask all there is?” Toby heard the bottle slosh as Nell shook it. “But you care about this boy, yes? Not enough to hand over the real coordinates, but enough to try and save him with fakes when you could have run.”

“Don’t do something you’ll regret, Nell.” Toby could sense his father’s mind racing. If Nell didn’t have his son, where was he?

“Oh, there’s only one thing in my long life that I regret, Barnaby.” There was a pregnant pause.

It was time to go.

Toby took a deep breath, skidded across the deck, reached
under the cannon and dragged Hiko out by the arm.

“There they are,” Ayla shouted.

Toby met his father’s eye. Barnaby lurched towards him, but Toby shook his head.

“Use the zip wires,” Toby yelled to his father. As pirates from the
Banshee
sprinted towards the stern of their ship, he caught Hiko’s wrist and they ran for the cable. “Hold on, Hiko.”

“Crackers!” Polly shrieked, as Hiko clambered on to Toby’s back and wrapped his legs around his stomach.

Toby didn’t even pause at the
Banshee
’s rail. He whipped off his scarf, wrapped it round the cable and, ignoring Hiko’s weight, he leaped.

His head jerked back as a pirate’s swiping hand clawed at him. For a second they all hung, gasping, over the side, but then Polly flew into the woman’s face and she released him with a shriek. Then they started to slide.

Toby looked back to see Ayla crash into the railing. Her oil-black hair flew in a gust of wind and she pushed it back from her eyes, watching him across the waves. He tore his gaze from her and turned back to the
Phoenix
, which was coming up on them, fast.

On the deck of the
Phoenix
, pirates were rushing to the end of the cable he was flying on, already reaching out for him.

“Cut the lines!” Nell’s voice carried across the water.

For one horrifying moment Toby felt his cable go slack, but then hands closed around him and he and Hiko thudded on to the deck.

Below him the line slid into the sea. The loosened hook landed on deck, then slithered off under the weight of the line attached to it.

Toby rolled out of its way, Hiko still clinging to his back.

Toby’s breath was shallow. “Let go, Hiko,” he gasped. Hiko released him and he sat up with tears in his eyes.

“Can anyone see the captain? Rahul, can you see him?” Toby yelled at the crow’s nest.

“They’re coming, Toby,” Rahul cried. “
Phoenix
, get ready to catch them.”

Toby whipped round to see the captain, Marcus, Amit and Ajay, all flying along cables towards the
Phoenix
, copying Toby, their scarves fraying as they flew. Polly raced alongside, chivvying them with wild squawking.

Over on the
Banshee
pirates worked, frantically sawing at cables.

Marcus was first to land. He flipped on to his feet and immediately turned to catch Ajay.

The captain and Amit were not so lucky. Their cables split with the sound of cracking wire.

Toby screamed as his father disappeared from view.
He scrabbled to his feet and ran for the railing. Fifteen feet below, Amit was clutching the razor wire of the paddle cage with one hand and the captain with the other. Blood dripped down his arm and beside them their empty cables swung.

“Throw us a rope.
Now
.” Amit’s face was creased with agony.

“He’s going to lose his bloody fingers.” Peel was already tossing a coil overboard. The rope snaked down the side of the
Phoenix
and hit Barnaby in the back. Immediately he wrapped one arm around the rope and the other around Amit, who released the wire. Then Peel started to haul them up.

As the captain was helped on board, Uma grabbed Amit and pursed her lips over his hand worriedly.

“They’ve got a trebuchet aimed at us.” Toby shouldered his way to her side. “If they fire it’ll hit the mess hall. We have to run.”

The captain followed Toby’s gaze over to the
Banshee
. Nell stood next to her daughter. For a long second the two captains stood, glaring at one another. Then Nell raised her hand.

“She’s going to fire.” The captain burst into action. “Marcus, throw that barrel overboard. Harry, start the engines. Everyone else, find something to hold.”

Marcus and Arnav rolled the barrel to the broken rail and tossed it overboard. Toby heard Nell’s cry as the plastic shattered against the side of the
Phoenix
and black oil exploded over her hull.

“There’s more where that came from,” the captain yelled.

“Hold fire,” Nell cried. “We need that oil.”

Toby spun. “Cut the grappling hooks.” The
Phoenix
’s crew were already moving, slicing rope after rope and tossing metal hooks into the sea after the clattering cables.

With a jerk and a purr Toby felt the
Phoenix
settle as her old engines turned over.

“I’m coming for you, Barnaby,” Nell howled. “You can’t outrun the
Banshee
. And when I board you, the first one on the point of my sword is your son.”

The captain looked around at the battered men and women of the
Phoenix
. Most leaned, either on rails or on one another. Weakened bow legs were more splayed than usual. Blood stood out scarlet against skin that was paper pale. Limbs dangled, weighed down by weapons they could barely lift. Exhaustion lined every face.

“We won’t win another battle,” Barnaby muttered.

The
Phoenix
was already moving. She pulled out from the shadow of the
Banshee
with a crunch of shifting junk.

“After them!” Nell waved. “Prepare more grappling hooks. Destroy them!”

Toby closed his hands on the railing, watching the
Banshee
. Her siren chased them across the bouncing waves, but she was not turning. The
Phoenix
loved her old engines and she was flying – ten knots already and heading hungrily for her top speed of fifteen.

Nell’s howl of frustration was buried beneath the
Banshee
’s wail.

“Why isn’t she following?” The captain leaned over the rail beside Toby. “What do you know that I don’t?”

Polly settled on Toby’s shoulder and checked that none of the crew could hear. “He wrecked their steering mechanism, Captain. The
Banshee
can move, but not in the direction Nell wants her to go. The only way she’ll turn is with those oars and that’ll take time.”

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