Just outside the coastal city of Gallenton . . .
Marlew hefted the coil of rope and grappling hook he carried, then set out to board the grounded vessel. The veteran sailor waded into the surf. He worked at keeping upright as the receding waves sucked the sand away from his feet. Marlew cast the hook up and away into the air in a smooth arch that fell behind the taffrail. He remarked at how odd it was for a ship to ground itself stern first. He pulled at the rope and felt the hook snag securely to whatever . . . he had no idea exactly. But it seemed sturdy enough to support his weight. This would be good enough to get him on board. He began, hand over hand up the rope, bracing his feet against the stern quarter. As he passed the busted windows of the captain's great cabin there was a flash of lighting. For an instant Marlew saw something very ugly in the room be illuminated from the electric glow.
"Marlew, me lad, you're an old sea dog and ye's know when a storm is coming and ye's knows when trouble comes too!" He thought suppressing a shiver. The chill he felt was not a result of the cold night or vicious storm. He reached the top and at once knew the cold breeze whistled up from hell!
The rest of the rescue team waited on the shore. Their eyes following the progress of their old friend as he boarded the Green Calidore. Twelve men watched as Marlew climbed over the top and gabbed the terminus of the poop rails, then disappeared into the darkness. They looked at each other and fretted in the cold, wet night. One of the men spoke up.
"I know, I know. We'd all be happier to be at the Sittyate Grogshop on a night like this," He turned to face the men, "We've work to do. As miserable as we may be, think of thems that's on that ship." A wave of sympathy broke upon their continence and determination set their jaws. They started forward when they heard Marlew's voice call from the ship.
"Ahoy, Ahoy!" Marlew spoke loudly and tried to speak above the ocean waves and the decaying storm.
"Here!" The leader of the twelve answered back.
"Send only those . . . that's known war."
"All dead. Need to search the rest of the ship."
Piper looked to his men and saw that they had paled. He chose four and himself to continue the rescue. The five of them had been in a campaign for their Prince ten years before and were veteran fighters.
"Take you swords with you lads." He turned to the seven remaining.
"Ready the carts, in case of survivors!" Piper turned to see the Jacob's ladder being lowered.
The rain had stopped and the wind had lessened when the rescue team climbed on board. Piper was last to be helped up by Marlew.
"This be bad, Piper," Marlew said.
"Hawkins, Jennkins light the torches," Piper ordered and then turned to Marlew. "What did you find?"
Marlew backed away and pointed in the direction of the wheel just as the torches flared to life.
"Harden your stomachs, lads! This be a most unnatural sight."
The old sea dog led the rescue party along the poop deck. He deftly used the ladder steps to lower himself on to the half deck. Taking a torch from Jennkins he thrust it before him, illuminating the ship's wheel and the grizzly object lashed to it. The men moaned in agony at the sight. A man . . . what was left of him was tied to the wheel. His body sagged in its web of tethers at uncomfortable angles. The rain had washed away all traces of blood from the corpse.
"Do you think we'll find the head sir?" Jacob asked. This question seems to give one of the men permission to wretch.
"The Calidore didn't break up and she seems stable enough to search. There have to be survivors."
Dividing up into three groups of two men each they started there search.
Piper and Marlew searched the officer's quarters. They found crewmen and officers dead.
"Odd, there is a lot of valuable possessions left about." Piper said.
"Right, if these men were killed by pirates the ship would be picked clean."
"Why? Marlew, what was this ship's cargo?"
"Ship's record at port says it was, farm implements."
"Destine for Castle Dracnil and Prince Blackpool no doubt."
"Did it ever make you wonder? With all the farm implements Dirk Blackpool imports, why is Kartiea starving?"
"That's because he grows crops of weapons. Arrows and swords are hard for people to eat."
"We better check the hold after the Grand Gallery." Piper said.
The two men exchanged knowing glances and then headed for the captain's quarters. Marlew paused before entering. The image he captured earlier from the flash of lighting made him cautious. The room was empty.
"Piper, when I was climbing up the Gallery, I saw a dead man at this table," he said pointing at the table and the open book that rested there.
"The captain I bet! He may be wounded . . . only looked dead!" The leader then noticed the book. "That's the ships log! It could give us a clue to this mystery." Piper closed the book and slipped it into the oilcloth wallet that rested underneath it.
Both men made their way below decks and toward the center of the ship. They met up with Jennkins and Stern.
"Sir," Stern addressed Piper, "We found about two dozen men. All missing their heads." Stern swallowed hard and braced himself to continue speaking, stuttered and went silent.
"Good work, Stern. You too Jennkins. Brave men . . . " Piper was trying to be encouraging, but the atmosphere of the wreck was too heavy, too smothering. Death was too close.
"Get above and wait for us by the ladder. Marlew and I are going to check the hold."
The groups separated. Marlew and Piper continued down into the darker depths of the ship.
There among the crates and barrels they found the strange man. He was the first black man Piper had ever seen. His upper body was chained to the main mast letting his legs and lower torso drape against the step. Blue fire seemed to crawl along the black tattoos that were scribed upon his face and hands. He was unconscious but alive. Piper severed the chains with a powerful blow from his sword. Marlew picked the large willowy figure up and slung him over his shoulder.
"Let's get him up top!" Marlew said.
"Wait," Piper looked about his feet and at the cargo crates. Using his sword he pried open the top of an unencumbered crate. Using his torch to carefully illuminate the contents, he recognized the cargo. "Damn!
Marlew, get out! We have to get out now!"
Marlew did not hesitate. As fast as he could, he scrambled to the upper decks as quickly as he could.
"What about survivors?" "All dead." The voice was not Piper's. It came from the Black Man in a slow sad sound.
"If we don't get out soon we will join this crew in hell!" Piper shouted.
"What did you see, Piper?"
"Phosphorous! You can get it wet, but don't let it hit the air! It makes fire, like Greek Fire!"
"I thought that was a kind of oil?"
"Marlew, I don't have time for a history lesson, get off the ship! GO!"
They found the stairs that led to the main deck. Marlew was losing strength from his burden, but managed to meet the rest of the party at the poop deck. The Black Man was trying to come too. Marlew tried to support him into a standing position. "Can you hold on to me?" he asked.
The Black Man nodded and wrapped his arms around Marlew as the old sea dog turned around. If the stranger could help him, it would make negotiating the ladder much easier. Stern and Hawkins were already down the ladder and into the surf. Jennkins was about half way. Marlew checked his preparations to descend when he saw the captain of the Green Calidore walk towards him and his friend. Piper turned and addressed the new man.
The pale captain opened his mouth as to speak. A hideous wheezing noise issued from his mouth and there seemed to be a bubbling froth spewing from the gapping wound at his throat.
"You are wounded, Captain. Let us help you!" Piper stepped forward with outstretched hands.
"No!" the Black Man had begun to revive. "Don't touch him. He's already dead!"
Piper hesitated and turned his head to Marlew and the Black Man. The captain let out a hungry growl, showing enormous fangs. He jumped onto Piper. Marlew's friend was too late to stop Barttelmar from sinking his teeth into Piper's neck.
"You can't help him," came the voice of the Black Man. "Save your self!"
Marlew moved backwards onto the ladder, hoping that his burden had sense enough to hold on. Whatever the captain of the Calidore was . . . he defiantly was no longer a man. Marlew could not take his eyes off the thing that now fed on his friend. Piper was dead.
At that moment Marlew felt the air move like a solid wall. There was only one sound and it was so big it became silence. In the slow motion of the great explosion he felt himself launched backward in the air. As he flew away he watched the baleful eyes of the creature on the deck of the Calidore. It look up at him. Marlew saw the masts and timbers of the deck take chase and speed toward him. It was satisfying to see the splintered beam pierce the captain through the heart. All world became very bright orange, green and very hot. Then the world became very dark and very cold.
Castle Blackpool...six weeks later
Dirk regarded the sleeping young woman with a mixture of curiosity and loathing. Her lips burble little snoring sounds. 'Such a pretty face to have such nasty noises come out of it,' he thought. He sat up in the bed and threw the covers to the foot of the bed. The chilled morning air should have elicited gasps of embarrassment and cold from the sleeper. She brought her arms up protectively to her naked bosom, roll to the edge of the bed and into a fetal position. Not once did she give any indication of waking, and she was continued to snore! Dirk rose and walked around to the woman's side of the bed. His bare feet tangled in the wench's discarded clothing. He snatched up the mound of homespun and threw it onto the sleeper. She snorted and her eyes fluttered. He thrust his arm around her. In a smooth movement, he pulled her from the bed and hauled her and her clothing to his chamber door. Entering the hall and dumps his naked burden onto the carpet.
Dirk glared down at the bundle of homespun, pink flesh and yellow hair. "Wash, before you return to the kitchens."
He strode back through his chamber to the large balcony. Inhaling the morning air, he allowed the chill to waken and freshen his senses. This was starting out to be a good day.
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