Authors: Bryony Pearce
Toby sat miserably as the chill of the arnica eased into his bruises. The sound of the wailing
knifed his brain. Although he was almost too scared to ask, he forced out the question that needed asking. “Did everyone make it?”
Barnaby’s hand stopped moving on his back and he packed away the cream before he answered. “Everyone’s
alive. There are a few broken bones. Big Pad’s the worst by far, although Uma is worried about Nisha’s baby.” Toby heard Barnaby sigh. “There’s a good reason I don’t allow pregnancies on ship.” He had to shout now, over the noise of their approaching rival. “Arnav took a bolt of lightning and Peel, a beam to the chin. His head’ll be ringing for a week. I’m more worried about the
“We can outrun her, can’t we?” Toby asked. “The
, how bad is she?”
Barnaby’s lips pinched together. “We’ll need to dock for repairs. But the paddles are working and we’re staying ahead of the leading edge of the storm. The
might be close, but we’re giving her a run.”
Beside Toby, Hiko squeaked, his whole body clenched.
“What?” Toby followed the younger boy’s gaze. Above the
’s guard rail the
“Run’s over,” Hiko whispered.
Toby had never seen the
up close. She was a horror.
“See that?” The captain’s eyes shone. “A wave-piercing tumblehome hull configuration – she’s the only destroyer with that design. Works brilliantly on the junk, but when the fuel crisis reached its peak they ended the building programme.”
looked like a colossal chisel slicing towards the
. Rain splashed from her metal hull, but she was so big and heavy that the waves barely affected her. She powered through the junk, forcing it aside and churning it into debris behind her.
As Toby watched, holes opened along one side and a hundred oars dipped into the water. Ponderously the
turned so that she was side-on to the
, showing one empty skull’s eye, bloody streaks running down the socket.
Toby ignored the ache in his back and leaned forward, his engineer’s brain fascinated.
“What’s powering her?” he shouted. “She’s got no sail, no paddle. Those oars can’t do it all.”
Barnaby sneered. “The
still uses her original engine. She ransacks everything she can find for fuel. She lives on the very last dregs of the old civilization and she’s sucked it dry. She’ll be dead in the water soon enough.” He shook his head. “If this isn’t her final voyage she’ll not be far off. Nell’s short-sighted in giving her no other means of propulsion. There’s literally no fuel left.”
Toby stared. “You mean she’s running her engines on actual oil?”
Barnaby nodded. “They’ve increased her efficiency, but
she’s a relic, soon to be dead.”
“Not soon enough –” Hiko pointed – “look.”
All along the
, grappling hooks bristled and the cannons on her deckhouse turned to the
The captain planted his boots and rose to his feet.
’s wail cut off. The abrupt end of the siren was a shock that made the hissing of the rain seem like silence.
“Toby.” Barnaby spoke without taking his eyes from the ship. “Take Polly and Hiko and hide beneath
“I’m not hiding under a lifeboat.” Toby staggered to his feet. “I
fight.” He closed a hand around Nix, biting off a grunt of pain. “It’s wrong if I don’t. Why should the rest of the crew go to battle if I don’t? I’m your son – I should be setting an example.” He raised Nix defiantly. “I don’t want any of the crew to die for me.”
Barnaby groaned. “You’re hurt and you’ve never been in combat. I understand your frustration, but you’re going to hide so I don’t have to worry about you.”
Toby opened his mouth.
“That’s an order. I’m your captain and I’m telling you, if you don’t go and hide right now, I’ll lock you in the boiler room until Nisha and Rahul leave the ship and then I’ll put you ashore with them.”
Toby gaped and all heat fled his body. “You wouldn’t.”
“Hide, Toby, or this’ll be your last voyage on the
“Come on.” Hiko tugged him towards the launcher. “There’s room for us both. Don’t leave me alone.”
“Everyone else will be fighting,” Toby yelled as Hiko pulled him. “I’m in better shape than half the crew.”
Polly landed on his shoulder in a flurry of feathers. “Be sensible, Toby.” She nuzzled his ear. “This is a job for experienced fighters.”
The captain’s expression froze and Toby knew there was no arguing with him. Furious, he slid into the crawl space between the launcher and the
’s hull. Immediately he swivelled round so he could see out, kicking angrily at a bolt of waxed cloth at his feet.
The captain removed his glasses and tucked them into his jacket. Then he drew his long knife and blunderbuss, hefting them, one in each hand. “
, I know you’re tired but the
is upon us. Get up and fight if you can do so, or we’re doomed.”
A flurry of legs sped by Toby’s face as a grappling hook landed on the
’s rail less than a metre from his hiding place. His instinct was to squirm free and cut the rope with Nix, but Dee reached the hook before he could move, sawed through the cable and tossed the hook into the sea.
Now grappling hooks fell upon them like iron snowflakes, clanging on to the deck and hooking over rails, masts and
even the pylon that housed the crow’s nest. Hiko ducked under Toby’s shoulder, his whole body trembling.
Toby tightened an arm around the boy and was about to pull them further into shelter when his eyes met Crocker’s and his heart sank. Crocker swung a wicked-looking fishing spear in one hand as he nudged his brother and crouched to peer into Toby’s cubbyhole.
“That’s right, little boy … hide,” Crocker sniggered. “The grown-ups will protect you.”
Toby clenched his fists, but he had nothing to say in reply. He was hiding while Crocker and the others were preparing to fight.
Still sniggering, Crocker and Peel took up a position by the guardrail nearest Toby’s hiding place. Peel’s bulk blocked Toby’s sight of the captain and he wriggled along the launcher to get a better view.
Polly nipped at him and Hiko caught at his shirt.
“Careful,” Hiko whispered. “You’re exposed.”
“I’ll be fine.” He pushed Hiko behind him. “I need to see.”
Arnav, Carson and the other walking wounded were scuttling along the guardrail, sawing at each of the hooks that landed, but the
faster than they could cut it free.
Toby clapped his hands over his ears as cannon fire boomed and he gasped as a ball of flaming junk smashed through the
’s siding. It dragged a canopy free, scattering the pirates, including Crocker and Peel. Pirates from the
immediately began to rappel towards the gap.
Polly squawked and jumped on to Toby’s back; she hopped along his spine until she reached his shoulder. “Get back underneath, Toby.” She tugged his hair, but he ignored her.
Peel leaped to his feet, his rubber-soled shoes bouncing him on to the gangway. His face wore a snarl of fury as he hefted his cleaver.
The first of the
’s pirates reached over the guardrail. With a vicious light in his eyes, Peel whipped his cleaver down, precisely where wrist met hand. The pirate went screaming into the sea. Blood splashed and Peel grinned through the scarlet that now flecked his fat face. Crocker capered at his elbow, stabbing with his spear and forcing invading pirates back off the ship. Like oiled boiler parts, Crocker herded the invaders towards Peel, who finished them off with his cleaver, or threw them overboard.
But the tide of invaders still flowed along dozens of grappling hooks and Toby realized the crew were going to be overwhelmed. With a sound like thunder, the captain’s blunderbuss roared from the quarterdeck, spitting nails and other debris. Blood misted the air but the dragoon was a one-shot and the captain was already handing it back to Rita for a reload.
Swiftly, the pirates from the
groups and began to head for the remains of the bridge.
Toby’s hiding place prevented him from seeing everything, but he kept his eyes on the captain as he moved in and out of view, wielding his long knife as if he had been a soldier all his life.
Dee fought at his side. In her hands she held a metal-tipped staff. When an attacker ran at her, sword raised, Dee whipped her staff straight before her and thrust it towards his face. His head snapped back, his nose flattened, and she whirled the staff to sweep his legs out from beneath him. Finally she cracked his forehead with the butt to knock him unconscious and brought the staff back into a guard position. The whole thing had taken less than two heartbeats.
The crew of the
fought with anything they could get hold of – weighted ropes, fishing spears, rigging hooks, hammers and knives. Even Uma was using her club; applying it to heads and hands with surgical precision. Few of them had real swords though, not like Nix. Toby’s fingers closed around his prize.
“I should be out there,” he muttered.
“No, you shouldn’t.” Hiko’s hand closed around Toby’s leg and Polly squirmed her way beneath his chin.
“You’ll have your chance to break my heart,” she muttered. “But not today.”
Hiko stared. “I’ve noticed that Polly is not a normal bird,” he whispered.
“No, she isn’t. Don’t say anything to anyone else; they’re not supposed to know.”
His attention returned to the fight as Marcus fell back, cut from ear to chin. He landed in a tangle of plastic chair backs with a clatter.
The pirate who had attacked him launched himself at the captain, only to find himself knocked aside by Dee’s staff and shouldered overboard by Amit and Ajay who were, as always, working together.
“Thank the gods they don’t have guns,” Toby muttered.
“There aren’t many bullets left,” Polly agreed. “And guns are no use for close-up fighting anyhow.”
pirates were managing to herd the crew of the
towards the shattered bridge and hem them in. Only Peel and Crocker remained near Toby’s hiding place.
The pirates from the
wore uniforms, Toby realized. Black leather jackets over black trousers. Their heads were shaven, even the women, and every head was tattooed with a screaming skull.
Toby swallowed. They were more organized than the crew of the
and they didn’t seem to have suffered in the storm. The
was going to lose this battle.
“Toby!” Polly’s warning squawk prevented him edging out of his hiding place as he tried to keep his eyes on the captain.
“Who’s this, then?” Hard fingers crushed his throat, dragging him out of his hole. For a second Toby’s legs caught; Hiko was trying to pull him back. He yelped as his knees caught on the top of the launcher and Hiko let him go.
He found himself wielded by the scruff of his neck.
“Release the boy.”
Toby followed his captor’s eyes to find Peel, barely recognizable with a bloodied face, half leaning on the remains of the guardrail with a pile of bodies at his feet. “He’s a little bastard, but he’s
Toby edged his hand inside his windcheater, seeking Nix.
“Cap’n Nell will be happy to meet
.” His captor ignored Peel and grinned. His tattoo had been applied lopsided so that the twisted skull leered grimly at Toby from one side of his head.
“I said, put the boy down.” Peel laboured to push himself straight. His eyes darted sideways to find support from his brother, but the pirate holding Toby snatched a crossbow from a holster behind his back and shot.
Peel staggered backwards as the arrow lodged under his collarbone.
The pirate crowed with laughter but his hand had loosened, so Toby dragged Nix free and stabbed upwards into the arm that held him. The tip of the sword sliced through leather and stuck. Toby recalled Peel’s words and pushed hard. He felt the jolt along his forearm as the blade bit bone.
Blood slipped down Nix in oily rivulets. The pirate yelled and opened his fist. Toby remembered to keep a tight hold on Nix as the pirate jerked backwards and the sword came free of flesh with a sucking sound that made Toby want to gag.
Toby scuttled away, but the pirate barely paused before reloading his bow and pointing it at his head.
“You’re coming with me.”
With a flurry of feathers Polly flew at Toby’s would-be kidnapper. The man held her off with his forearm and gestured with his weapon.
Seeing no choice, Toby rose slowly to his feet, still clutching a bloody Nix.
“Captain!” Peel shouted. He forced himself to his knees, ripping out the bolt that protruded from his shoulder. Blood gouted down his chest.
The pirate looked at Peel with a shake of his tattooed head. “Your captain’s trapped.” He turned back to Toby. “I know who you are, boy. If I get you to Nell, your ship is
ours with no more losses on our side.”
“No!” Hiko hurtled from beneath the launcher and slammed into the pirate’s legs. With a surprised yelp the pirate toppled backwards. His crossbow fired into the sky and with a final grasp at nothing he fell overboard, screaming until he hit the paddle’s wheelhouse with a sickening thud.
They both stared at the empty spot. Then Hiko grabbed Toby and began to shove him back beneath the launcher.
Toby’s eyes met Peel’s and the old pirate sneered as he wobbled to his feet. He straightened his back, ignored his bleeding shoulder and jumped on top of the men surrounding Crocker.
Toby crawled back under the boat as fast as he could. Polly fluttered in and Toby was reaching to pull Hiko beside him when the boy screamed.
Huge hands wrapped around Hiko’s waist and dragged him backwards.
Before Toby could wriggle out, the boy had been thrown to another invader who whooped and tossed him to yet another. Toby struggled to his feet and ran after his friend. He vaulted the fallen mast, but the
pitched as he jumped. His feet tangled in the sail and the rigging on the other side. Toby went down hard, his shoulder slammed on a metal spike and he vomited on to the deck as pain
twisted his stomach into knots.
He pushed himself up on his hands in time to see Peel lunging after Hiko, too late. Before Toby could rise to his feet, Hiko was rappelled off ship towards the
Toby gaped as Peel raced to the captain, then he rose shakily to his feet and staggered to the gunwale.
Polly flapped in his face. “Don’t do it, Toby.”
“Don’t do what?” The hook in front of Toby dug into the
“I know what you’re thinking, but you mustn’t.” Polly hopped up and down on his shoulder.
Toby turned as a bang and plume of smoke from the blunderbuss obscured his view of his father. The fighting on the quarterdeck was vicious and no one had a glance to spare for Toby. He ached to fight at his father’s side, but the captain had his crew fighting alongside him. Hiko had no one.
Toby dragged his eyes from the blur of smoke. “Hiko saved my life, Polly. Twice. The boiler would have exploded without him and that pirate would’ve taken me.”
“You don’t owe him anything, he’s a
“He’s only a kid. He must be scared out of his mind.”
“Send someone else.” Polly tightened her claws on his neck, frantic. “Stop trying to be a hero all the time.”
“There isn’t anyone else.” Toby swung first one leg and
then the other over the gunwale, so that he was sitting on the railing. The
was taller than the
; it was going to be hard work pulling himself across.
“No!” Polly wailed, as Toby caught hold of the cable linking the grappling hook to its mother ship. He jumped from the
, wrapped his legs around the thick wire and started to drag himself up the steep incline towards the