Over the Black Glass
by Stanley Wheeler
Copyright © 2022 Stanley Wheeler All Rights Reserved
“Shall I wear the flesh from my knees, and bloody my breasts and belly upon the flinty waves with groveling to the Protectors’ Guild?”
I watched her from the steps near the top of the quarterdeck where she spoke with her father Cedric Draki. She personified the glory of the sunset over the Obsidian Sea. From my position, she stood proudly adorned by the pink-orange smear of sky, wearing it like a part of her uniform. A few locks of dark hair streamed from beneath her blue tricorn hat in the steady wind.
A steady wind always blew over the Obsidian Sea. The scrape of the ship’s skates against the glassy surface created a steady whine to accompany the wail of the wind, the groaning of lines, and the snap of the sails overhead.
She placed her hand on the hilt of the sword at her waist. In the light of the setting sun, her white breeches acquired a rosy glow which contrasted against the black boots, and the blue jacket which hung to her mid-thigh. The knee-guards on the boots had been rounded, but were very thick. The Obsidian Sea is unforgiving to knees and flesh. The gold vest and the gold lace on her jacket collar, cuffs, and the edges of the jacket and hat flashed pink as she turned.
“You’ve become too successful,” her father said. “The pirates avoid your ship and attack the other protectors. You command a higher price because your cargo always ships from Oriac to the Straits of Anissem intact.”
“Because the others buy-off the pirates with half of the cargo.”
“They say it’s better than losing the entire shipment.”
“So they want to make up their losses with a share of our profits?”
“That’s what the guild representative said. I wish you had been there to hear him yourself.”
“I’d have run him through.” She drew her sword for emphasis.
“And the three guild ships would already be upon us instead of waiting for you to complete this haul before they greet us at our home island. There was a time when I might have killed him myself, but I’ve learned patience.”
“What answer can they expect?”
“They expect you to accept the offer: Turn over all profits to the guild to be distributed equally among the guild members.”
“They ask too much. They ask the lives of my men to line their own pockets. My men earn more with me than they can with any other protector along this coast. If I can no longer pay them a better wage, they’ll go elsewhere or shun the fight.”
The father, dressed like his daughter but with a jacket and hat of red, stepped closer to her and said, “In which case you’ll have to trade a share of cargo for passage like the rest of the guild.”
“In which case we’re no protectors. We’re nothing but common carriers paying a toll. Our profits will go down to match theirs.”
“They will have cured their problem of looking bad by comparison to you and losing their best sailors to you. You will lose share in the market, but it will not matter as the guild will share the market equally, and you will have an equal share.”
She sheathed the sword, slamming the hilt against the metal lip of the sheath. “With some shares being more equal than others. Dad, you didn’t start this enterprise only to turn it over to the guild. I’m not going to become the guild’s serf, working myself and my men to make the guild council fat with our labors. They can go to…”
The wind blew away the rest of her words as a shout from the crow’s nest sounded.
“Pirates to the west!”
I mounted to the quarterdeck for a better view. In the dying light I made out sails on the horizon.
She looked across the Obsidian Sea which glistened here and there where the fading light struck the windswept waves of flint.
“We run through the night. They won’t catch us before dawn.”
“Let them see the flag,” her father said. “They should turn away.”
“They won’t be able to make out the flag until sunrise. We’ll run tonight and fight them in the morning if they have the stomach for it.”
For the past few months the pirates had been turning away when they saw the blue flag with the red dragon and sword flying from the mainmast. We had taught them that we did not turn over cargo without a fight. They found that the price of testing our will exceeded their ability to pay.
Cedric removed his hat, running one hand over the thin, gray remnants of his close-cropped hair. He put the hat under his arm. “Ulthea, suppose the pirates put down their skimmers in the dark. Shall we tack to a new course when the light fades? If we’re not going to bow to the guild’s demands, we’ll have to deal with those three guild ships when we get home. We may not want to risk the damage we could take in a clash with the pirates.”
She took her father’s hand. “You don’t think I should submit to the guild?”
“No, but you should know that I paid the tax the guild asked of me. I knew they taxed me at a higher rate than the others. The business supported it. It was easier to pay it than to see my enterprise die. I paid the tax, but now the guild asks more than a tax. You’re the captain now. I’ll support whatever decision you make. Don’t think that you have to save the enterprise on my account. I’ve always been a practical man. I’ve never fought more than two ships at once, but put a brace of pistols in my hands and point me at the enemy, and I’ll fight. I can’t see the odds.”
She led her father to me, speaking to him as they approached.
“We’ll hold our course through the night. We’ll watch for their skimmers, but I don’t think they’ll put down because we’ll run without lights. Skimmers are too easily lost in the night, and the pirates are not as bold as they used to be.” Touching my arm, she said, “Take him to my quarters.”
“Aye,” I whispered with a nod.
She extended Cedric’s hand toward me. I took it, looking to his eyes as I did when I shook a man’s hand. The skin had closed over his blind orbs, and they remained forever darkened. A shrapnel shell had taken both eyes on his final voyage as captain. He smiled, and squeezed my hand.
“Lead on, Wilfred,” he said.
I led him down the steps and into the cabin.
“Can she fight the guild?” I asked Cedric.
“If anyone can, she can. She fought off her brothers and everything else.”
I saw him situated in the captain’s quarters. He knew the layout, having spent years there himself. There was no need for me to assist him.
“Go to her,” he said. “She may have something to tell you. She may even want you to put down in a skimmer tethered to the Dragon Claw.”
“Aye,” I said. I did not want to man a skimmer in the dark, tethered or not.
When I mounted to the quarterdeck once more, she stood at one of the aft swivel guns looking out into the darkness. When the sun goes down beyond the coast of the Obsidian Sea, the night and the sea become one. The darkness above and below wrap one with a loneliness unlike any other. Only the steady hiss of the skates and the noise of sails and lines break the spell of the night married with the wind. We usually ran with lanterns projecting light from the bowsprit, and others about the deck, but tonight we wouldn’t give the pirates a light to follow. There weren’t many obstacles about the Obsidian Sea. The islands were well charted and we were on course toward the straits. A derelict ship or another vessel running without lights constituted the only dangers. Most ships which wrecked upon the flint received the torch, to burn and blow away, leaving only a few bits of steel and iron upon the black glass, but there were exceptions. The odds of an impact were low, but the gravity of the harm depended upon our speed and the size of the hulk in our way. Traveling at top speed with the wind as we were would assure a devastating collision. None of those thoughts provided a comfort against the great encircling darkness and its summons to lonesome sequestration in the yawning expanse of night.
She heard my approach though I trod softly upon the woody deck.
“He told you I might want to put down a skimmer.”
“Not to worry. I won’t be putting down. Not yet. Get some sleep if you can.”
I descended into the hold rather than to the hammocks below deck. I knew I could find a snug berth among the kegs, crates, and sacks of salt, spices, herbs, and the bags of sand we used for ballast. Worries about hitting something in the dark and how Ulthea would handle the guild kept me awake, but sleep did find me eventually. I know because the abrupt stop which threw me from the aromatic bed into the base of the mainmast woke me from a peaceful sleep.
I must have been the last to make it topside. Ulthea yelled my name as soon as my feet touched the deck. While I ran to see what she wanted, she hollered for the men to furl the sails.
“Take Algar for your gunner. Put down a skimmer and head south with all speed. I want you out of sight before sunrise. Take this,” she handed me a spyglass. “When you spot that skulking pirate, follow it in but don’t get close enough to attract attention to yourself. I’m sending the other one north with the same instructions. I trust you’ll know what to do if there’s anything to be done.”
Four men put the skimmer over the sloped side of the Dragon Claw. Unlike ships of the watery seas, the vessels of the Obsidian Sea were wide at the bottom and angled up to the narrower deck. Algar and I in our leather skimmer jackets and pants raised the mast, lifted the metal-shod end into the coupling ring, and inserted the iron pins to keep it in place. Algar situated his bags of powder and explosive shells in the slots about the swivel gun. He placed the covered bucket of swabbing water in the recess in front of the gun. He filled his pocket with quill fuses. I set my sheets, the lines for adjusting the sail, and took two loaded pistols with a pouch of paper cartridge reloads about my neck. I placed my sword in the long slot beside me and hooked the leather thong over a metal pin to keep the weapon secure. My knives remained in my belt.
Ulthea caught me eyeing the front skate and the remnant of the hulk with which we had collided in the dark. The skate had bent. The support between the skate and hull had splintered. Crews with tripods, and block and tackle were already raising the front of the ship so that one of the replacement skates and new supports from the hold could be attached.
“We’ll be ready in no time, Wilfred,” she called to me. “Don’t worry about us. Go. Disappear and be ready if things get flinty.”
Algar settled in forward of the mast at his swivel gun behind the front skate. I sat between the wide outriggers to which the rear skates were attached. The sleek, triangular craft sat lightly upon its three skates. The light hull, sail and all her parts were as black as the obsidian around us. The pirates would be unlikely to spot us upon the vast black glass.
Algar pulled his leather cap down to cover his ears. He turned his face with three blue and gray chevron stripes painted from forehead to chin. “You ready?”
We had not previously crewed a skimmer together, so I didn’t know what rituals he might expect before we pushed out onto the glass. I adjusted my own black cap, tucking my eyepatch against my forehead under the leather cap.
“Put this on.” He handed me the small pot of blue paint.
I swiped a daub of paint across each cheek.
“There is more power in a pattern, like my stripes,” Algar said. “You can always use more power.”
I wanted more power, but I didn’t hold with Algar’s belief that the paint held or bestowed power. His people came from east of the Obsidian Sea, and had many strange ideas. I didn’t know exactly where the power of the kind he meant originated, but I knew that power could be placed into objects to provide specific protections or abilities. I found it a little ridiculous to think that plain old paint—colored grease, really—could impart some nebulous power. If power wasn’t specific, it wasn’t worth having as far as I was concerned.
“What do those chevrons do for you?” I asked.
“They make me look fierce. They also point the way for my shots to go straight to the target, and turn aside the shots that come for me.”
“So what does smearing my cheeks do for me?”
“Hides your ugly face. No small task,” he grinned. “Here, let me help you.”
He used one finger to run two streaks of gray paint from my forehead and over each eye down to the bottom edge of my jaw.
“Now you will steer true. Your eyes will see clear, and you will not wet yourself when the pirates shoot at you.” He laughed and stowed his paint in his leather coat. “I’m ready. Point me at my enemy, and I will kill him.”
I stepped out of the skimmer and pushed against it, moving it from the lee side of the ship into the wind. I nearly slipped when the wind caught the sail. I didn’t fall, but a broken edge of the sea scored the toe of my boot. I leaped into the seat of the skimmer and adjusted the sail. I didn’t feel as badly about putting out in the skimmer when I knew that the ship would be stationary. I could find my way back to it, and dawn was not far off. Also, odds were against there being a second derelict to wreck our little craft. We tacked away, working south until the pink fingertips of the coming day began to pry back the lid of night.
I turned us around and closed the sail. I brought the spyglass to my eye. The Dragon Claw rose in the distance. About a molat away from her, the pirate vessel sailed across the glass toward her prey.
“You see her?” Algar asked.
“My paint is good. You see true, like I say.”
“We’ll have to hurry to get back before things get flinty.”
Algar loaded a bag of powder into the swivel gun. “You want first shot close, or far?”
He took a ball with a short fuse and jammed it down the barrel of the gun behind a piece of cloth wadding. He added another bit of wadding to hold the ball in place until it should be fired. He lit a length of slow match with the lock of his pistol. He placed the slow match in a small drawer beneath the swivel gun, and loaded his pistol.
I opened the sail and we whisked across the surface with the wind. The flinty waves passed beneath us in a black blur. The crests and troughs of the glass sea did not move and heave as on the watery sea, and they were but slight compared to those liquid waves. Although the waves were hardly felt in the great ships, the skimmer transferred each rise and fall to the stomach of its passengers. Even though I had grown accustomed the action, I had no love for the repeated rise and fall within my gut. However, the exhilarating speed at the cusp of chaos and control that came with reining the wind across the heaving glass kept the unpleasantness in my belly from rising to my throat. There was only one place more pleasing to me than speeding over the Obsidian Sea.
When we approached within a quarter molat of the two large ships, I halted the craft. The Dragon Claw flew no flag. Through the spyglass I saw that the deck did not bristle with muskets or bustle with crews manning the guns. She seemed deserted but for a few souls about the tripods at the front of the ship and some men in the masts. Had Ulthea done nothing to prepare for the attack after sending out the skimmers? Had the broken skate not been repaired? Where were the crew who should be warning off the pirate? Why had the dragon flag not been hoisted?
“Take us in, and I’ll burst a shell upon their deck,” Algar said.
“We’ll wait. The captain has something afoot.”
The pirate ship slowed and angled in to present its broadside to the stern of the Dragon Claw. From such a position, it might rake the deck with shrapnel and grapeshot to murder the ship’s crew in the deadly storm from its guns. In the instant that the pirate turned, the sails of the Dragon Claw unfurled. She lurched forward upon the newly replaced front skate. She turned, bringing her own broadside toward the pirate. Men rose from hiding upon the deck to man the guns.
I snapped the sail open on the skimmer and we surged forward. I didn’t know what Ulthea had planned, but I knew I had to be ready. I had to be moving.
The ship kept going, turning in front of the pirate. She would soon have her guns aligned to sweep the pirate deck, unless the pirate turned one way or the other. The pirate couldn’t turn to starboard as it would strike the hulk. If it turned to port to match the Dragon Claw, it would have to trade broadsides or risk stalling in the headwind if it turned about. Trading broadsides would eventually work to the pirate’s advantage. She was the faster vessel and would outmaneuver the Dragon Claw if she wasn’t heavily damaged in the exchange.
I knew what I had to do. I turned toward the stern of the pirate ship.
“Fire your gun and bail out!”
Algar turned back to look at me, the painted chevrons on his brow furrowed.
“Just do it!”
He jabbed one of his quills into the touchhole of the gun where it punctured the bag of powder in the barrel. As I aimed the craft at the rear skate on the port side, he touched the slow match to the quill. A second later the gun roared and we passed through the smoke. The shell exploded over the rail of the pirate ship.
Algar leaped clear of the skimmer. I rose from my seat, maintaining the craft’s speed and course. Before the impact, I slipped off the rear of the skimmer to tumble across the glass. The skimmer struck the skate with the point passing into the gap behind the upturned nose of the ship’s skate. The mast of the skimmer snapped off, jamming it in place against the hull. The two rear skates on the skimmer smashed into the big skate. The port skate wedged itself between the front of the big skate and the flint. The starboard skate caught in the connecting framework. The big ship might adjust her sails, but the rear skates would be useless as rudders, and the skimmer skate wedged crosswise against the glass would slow or stop the vessel.
An instant after Algar and I hit the flint, the other skimmer fired a shell which exploded against the stern of the pirate ship. That skimmer turned away to reload. Algar and I got to our feet. He held one hand clutched to his chest, but the blood flowed from beneath his fingers. I grabbed him and examined the wound. The fleshy edge of his palm had been sliced away. I rushed him beneath the pirate ship, and wrapped his hand with the scarf from around his neck. The space between the belly of the ship and the sea was the safest place on the glass for the present.
“You stopped him,” Algar said. He frowned. “I will not ride with you again.”
The ship above our heads shuddered as the two broadsides roared at one another. Ships upon the Obsidian Sea didn’t sink. The vulnerable areas were the skates, sails, and crew. The ships were too close to target the skates.
I left Algar and removed my sword from the skimmer. I climbed upon the broken craft to reach to the side of the pirate ship. All the action was upon the other side of the vessel now, so no pirate crew watched for me. I used my knives to claw my way up the sloped hull to the deck. Crews reloaded guns, and men with muskets fired across the gap between the ships. The wind carried away the smoke from the guns, but the wounded bodies remained. I slipped my eyepatch down to cover my left eye. The one I figured for the pirate captain stood near the mainmast shouting orders and pointing with his sword. He wore his black tricorn hat at a rakish angle. The end of a red scarf dangled from the back of his head to touch the shoulder of his bright green jacket.
I hopped the rail and ducked behind a skimmer strapped to the deck. Musket balls tore the deck here and there in a booming, crackling cacophony. The big deck guns roared in another exchange, and I hunkered down until the fury of lead and debris had passed. The pirate captain yet stood boldly. The Dragon Claw was passing and would be in position to fire the length of the pirate deck as soon as her guns were re-loaded. I vaulted the skimmer and made for the pirate captain. I held one knife at his throat and the other in his back.
“Strike your colors and you’ll live, Osric.”
I recognized him now that I had my weapons against his flesh. Had he been another, I might have given him both blades and cast his body over the side. I couldn’t kill Osric. I dragged him backwards toward the rail lest any of his crew surprise me from behind.
I removed the knife from his back just long enough to raise the patch from my eye, so that he might see who held him.
“Aye. Throw down your sword and strike your colors before I acquaint you more intimately with my pointed friends.”
Osric stabbed his sword into the deck. He raised his arms above his head.
“Strike the colors! We surrender!”
His men followed their captain’s example, and another hauled down the ship’s black and red flag.
“Osric,” Ulthea said without emotion. “I knew you had joined the pirates. I had no idea you had your own ship.”
I kept my pistol pointed at Osric. He ignored me, taking a seat before Ulthea and Cedric in the captain’s quarters of the Dragon Claw. He removed his hat to reveal the red scarf tied about his head. His long, dark hair was gathered in a queue at the back of his neck.
“Talent rises to the top,” he replied, stroking his moustache with one finger.
“Like a rotten rat in the ale,” Ulthea said.
“You shouldn’t be hostile. I’m the one taken prisoner. Why weren’t you flying the dragon flag?”
“Would it have stopped you?”
“Probably not, but I would have been more cautious. What’s your price?”
“We don’t bargain with pirates. The punishment for piracy is death.”
“It’s not so much piracy as enforcing our property rights. If you would pay the toll, you might pass safely.”
“A toll for the use of the black glass? A toll for the wind in our sails? A toll for the clear blue sky and the sunshine reflected in the obsidian waves? You know I’ll never pay it. We’re free to ply the Obsidian Sea as we please without bowing to thieves and murderers.” Her dark eyes flashed anew with the final phrase. She bared her sword and put it to Osric’s chest. “Wouldn’t you rather die by the sword now than swing from the yardarm later?”
“Ulthea,” Cedric said softly.
“We don’t deal with pirates, Dad.”
“But we might make a business proposition to family. Would you consider coming back to the family enterprise, Son?”
“There’s no need of a proposition. Wilfred can command his ship,” Ulthea said.
“Thank you, Father. At last you’ve realized your mistake in making her captain of the Dragon Claw.”
“No mistake,” Cedric said. “I made the right choice. Would you leave the pirate trade for honest work?”
“To work for her?”
“With her. You could captain a protector ship if you earn it.”
“Dad,” Ulthea protested. “He tried to take the enterprise by force with Oswald. He’s a pirate. He can’t be trusted.”
“She’s right. You may as well hang me. I can’t work with her.”
“I’ve lost one son. I don’t want to lose another.” Cedric walked straight to Osric as if he had full use of his eyes. He put a hand on Osric’s shoulder, and used his other to feel across Osric’s chest to find the point of Ulthea’s sword. He gently moved the blade away. “You didn’t become captain of a pirate ship so quickly on natural talent. What’s your secret?”
“Magic. You have something. What is it?”
Osric looked at me.
“Don’t look to Wilfred to save you,” Ulthea said. “He’s not the boy who played with us upon the shores and in the caves. He’s loyal.”
“Wilfred won’t take your secret,” Cedric said. “He has his own.”
Osric laughed and rose to his feet. “Shoot me, Wilfred. Your pistol ball cannot touch me as long as I’m wearing this.” He stroked the red scarf tied about his crown. “Yet Ulthea’s sword, or any other blade might pierce me. It was lucky for you that you put your pointed friends against me instead of your pistols. You might have been my prisoner instead of the reverse. Now you know my secret. What’s yours, Wilfred?”
I looked to Ulthea and Cedric. She nodded.
Cedric said, “Show him.”
I pulled the eyepatch over my eye.
Ulthea inhaled audibly.
“Og’s mogs,” Osric said. “You’ve such a power and remain only an assistant to the flag of the dragon and the sword? I should be lord of an entire fleet with such a power.”
I turned around.
“I see it has limitations,” Osric said.
“How long have you known of this, Dad?” Ulthea asked.
“Since I began to wonder why Wilfred always took the lead when the pirates came to board. I watched and learned. He didn’t know until now that I knew he vanished in front but from not behind.”
“Have you nothing similar, Ulthea?” Osric asked.
“I have no protector but this.” She cut the air with her blade.
“Not so close,” Osric said.
“Osric,” Cedric began, “at least listen to the proposition. Your sister has a plan. I’ll let her make the proposition if she will.”
“I’ll make it simple, so you can understand,” she said, sheathing the sword. “Give Wilfred your scarf, take your ship and go, never to attack my ships again, or join me with your ship to take three guild ships seven days from now back at Aixandal Island.”
“I accept,” Osric said. He rose, clapping one hand upon Cedric’s back. He tossed me the red scarf, and replaced his hat. “Use it wisely, Wilfred. I swear I’ve never seen a man with less ambition. I’ll take my men and be off. The scarf is a small price to pay to know that the guild will do what I could not.” He left the cabin without another word.
“I knew he wouldn’t help,” Ulthea said.
“You weren’t very persuasive, and you gave him an escape by letting him trade the scarf for his ship and freedom. I thought you were going to keep his ship.”
She took Cedric’s hand and held it to her bosom. “After what he and Oswald did, I can’t trust him. Letting him have his ship was a small price to pay for being rid of him.”
“But the guild ships,” Cedric said.
“I’ll think of something.”
She always did.
I held out the scarf and eyepatch to her.
“Keep it. I prefer such valuables to remain with someone I trust.”
Six days later we arrived back at Aixandal Island with the new cargo we had protected on the return from the straits. Another carrier took the cargo into Oriac for sale or further transport by caravan. We prepared to receive the guild ships. The guild would send the council ships, the enforcers. When someone infringed on guild interests, the heavily armed enforcer ships persuaded them to cease and desist from such activity, or suggested that they pay the steep admission cost to join the guild. There was a third option. It wasn’t pleasant.
Ulthea received the guild representative who preceded those ships on the deck of the Dragon Claw. The ship rested between the three masses which constituted Aixandal Island. Eadwig the Loud crossed the railed plank from the unarmed, two-masted vessel over to Ulthea’s larger vessel. His long, pale coat carried a year’s profits in gold buttons and lace. His tricorn hat and breeches matched the coat. Only the gold and green striped belt that wrapped him from rotund waist to belly button broke up the pattern. Large gold rings hung from his thick earlobes to brush his heavy jowls. His long blond hair dangled in tight curls. His plump hand held a gold rod of one fulat in length. Two smaller assistants in similar livery followed behind.
Ulthea whispered, “The guild pig has arrived. Let’s hear his squeal.” Aloud she said, “Welcome aboard, Eadwig.”
“You are honored by the guild’s attention,” Eadwig said. His voice had a rather high pitch and carried clearly. When Ulthea did not reply, he continued. “I bring the greetings of the council.” He held up the rod, his badge of office. He extended his other hand to the side. One of his assistants placed a scroll into his hand. “I have the new guild agreement prepared for your signature…”
“Which provides?” Ulthea asked.
“Which provides that all guild members will turn over all gross receipts to the guild at the end of each month to be divided equally among the guild.”
“I don’t recall requesting such an agreement.”
“The guild has decided.”
“I’m a member of the guild and I didn’t make that decision.”
“You were not present at the meeting.”
“I received no notice of such a meeting. Therefore the meeting was not valid and any action taken is null and void.”
“Your vote would not have mattered. The decision was otherwise unanimous. You may read the agreement before signing if you wish.”
“I do not wish. I will not sign. The guild is in violation of our prior agreement. I have paid my annual dues and other guild taxes. I did not agree to a change of terms. The guild has conspired against me and held secret meetings aimed at destroying my enterprise. I demand that the guild retract this proposal and honor our prior agreement.”
Eadwig the Loud stamped his white shoe upon the deck. “You have no choice. You must sign the agreement or the council ships will expel you from the guild and end your enterprise. However,” a broad, waxy grin split his face momentarily, “you may come with me to have words with Aethelbert, Council Lord, and express your thoughts. He commands the Goad, one of the ships which is underway to enforce the new agreement.”
“Words are a fine way of expressing thoughts, but nothing conveys a message quite like powder and ball, or a length of sharpened steel.” She stepped forward, whisking her sword from the sheath and placing the tip against Eadwig’s throat.
At that signal, two dozen of our men stormed across the plank to seize the representative’s ship.
“You can’t do this. I’m a guild representative. My person is inviolate. That ship is guild property,” the porcine man squealed.
“Show the representative our guest accommodations,” Ulthea said to the two who held Eadwig. When they hesitated, she said, “The brig. Take him to the brig.”
“That was rather abrupt,” Cedric said.
“I don’t have time for small talk, and he came straight to the point. I was merely answering the representative.”
The three basalt mountains of Aixandal Island were separated by obsidian channels which converged in the harbor on the largest of the islets. Ulthea had the guild ship taken into the harbor and prepared for the coming reception.
As Ulthea had predicted, a guild ship came up each channel to prevent the Dragon Claw’s escape.
We knew that when neither Eadwig nor his ship returned, Aethelbert would reason that Ulthea had chosen the third option. The big, yellow ships with their double rows of guns on each side worked slowly up the channels. The Dragon Claw waited in the glass harbor. Aethelbert brought the Goad up the central channel. The Badger and the Hound came in from the side channels.
Ulthea and I took up rope and grappling hooks as we prepared to leave the ship. “Follow the plan, Dad, and we’ll take or destroy all three ships,” she told Cedric.
“I never thought to command a ship again,” Cedric laughed. “You’ll be my eyes, Tureth,” he said to the tall woman beside him.
Algar still wore a bandage and glove on his injured hand. He ran to me with his little pot of paint. “That your eyes see clear, and you do not wet yourself,” he said, painting streaks down my face as he had done in the skimmer. “We will try not to shoot you.”
“Your concern overwhelms me.”
“Let’s go,” Ulthea ordered.
We descended by the rope ladder and ran across the glass to the lush foliage along the shore. We hurried through the soft, large-leafed plants toward the approaching Goad. Algar’s concern about wetting myself returned to mind as we trod the ground dampened by the many springs upon the islands. How did I know Osric’s scarf deflected ball and shot? I had never tested the power of the red cloth which I wore beneath my black tricorn. Common sense persuades against testing some magic too vigorously. I would soon stake my life and Ulthea’s upon Osric’s representation.
When the Goad passed by, we ran from cover to the stern of the enemy ship. The movement of the Dragon Claw held the attention of the guild crew. Cedric brought her to the edge of the channel and turned her broadside to Aethelbert’s vessel. The big guild ship might turn to match broadsides, but she would render herself immobile within the channel by the maneuver. The Goad plowed ahead. I had to give the council lord credit for his bravery. I imagined the knowledge that his two other ships were bearing down upon the Dragon Claw colored his courage.
Ulthea and I raced behind. We hurled our grappling hooks over the stern rail. I had to climb as fast as I could to stay ahead of her in the ascent. We peeked between the rails at the deck of the Goad. The long, flat deck must’ve held over a hundred sailors manning the big guns. Another hundred waited with flintlocks at the ready. They wore the colors of various guild crews. Their eyes remained on the Dragon Claw.
“As I said,” Ulthea whispered. “The crews are the same cowards who man the ships of the other guild members. If they crumble to pirate threats, they’ll never defeat us.”
We needed no distraction as we mounted to the deck, but the guild representative’s ship provided us with one. The Hound skated toward the bow of the Dragon Claw. Eadwig’s captured vessel shot forward across the glass from where it had been placed upon a steep ramp. Flames cavorted like exuberant fire spirits on the deck of the little vessel. The red-orange apparitions cut a fiery blur across the black glass straight into the bow of the Hound. The crew of the Goad groaned like a stressed beam. The crack of timbers accompanied the collision and storm of flame and cinders that exploded against the side of the Hound to roll up and across her deck.
I stepped in front of Ulthea and lowered the patch to my eye. She stepped up behind me, putting her left arm about my waist. In her right, she held her sword. I relished every contour she pressed against me.
The Goad was within range of the Dragon Claw’s guns, but that ship did not rake us. Aethelbert in his white and gold uniform drew his sword.
“I am here, Aethelbert!” Ulthea cried.
Aethelbert whirled, his sword half raised. A dozen muskets turned in our direction. The test of Osric’s scarf was nigh. I feared only a little. I felt Ulthea’s body tense against me, and knew that I might die happily.
“Throw down your weapons and I will spare your lives,” Ulthea called.
Several men dropped their muskets. When they saw that their comrades did not comply as well, they stooped to reclaim their arms.
“Shoot her!” Aethelbert commanded.
I stood as straight and tall as I could. Ulthea pressed into me, matching her outline to mine.
A wall of fire erupted with the click-boom of more than fifty muskets discharging a savage onslaught of lead and gray-black smoke. When the blast died, we did not. No ball had touched us, although the deck around us and the railing at each side behind splintered in the discharge. Osric had spoken true. Although I might have died happy, I confess to great relief that I had not. Ulthea’s left leg pressed mine forward. The right followed, and we walked forward toward Aethelbert.
“Surrender. You cannot harm me.”
We stepped near a sailor in a tan uniform who attempted to reload his musket. Ulthea pulled her sword from behind her back and thrust him through. The others stumbled backwards beyond reach. Several muskets clattered against the deck and the erstwhile bearers raised their palms. A path between Ulthea and Aethelbert cleared.
Ulthea whispered in my ear, “We’ve unnerved them. When Aethelbert approaches, step aside. My sword will treat with him.”
Aethelbert stepped forward. Ulthea attempted to press me forward, but I refused. “We can’t risk letting the enemy get behind me where they would see me, and where they might shoot at you without the scarf’s protection.”
She desisted, standing still while Aethelbert strode forward. The frown beneath his long moustache transformed into a smile. He stopped about five paces away.
“Is it the hat, the coat? You have some magic about you, Ulthea. Fortunately, I have the antidote for that.”
He slipped a pistol from his belt. The movement gave me an involuntary shiver. An extension had been added to the barrel of the gun. The extension was only an unlat or two long, but it was of gold with some bright gems about it. I couldn’t be certain whether my own fear counseled me, or whether the power in the scarf reacted to the presence of Aethelbert’s weapon, but I sensed that a ball from that pistol would penetrate the magic of Osric’s scarf.
“It’s gold,” I said softly to Ulthea.
“Gold may defeat magic,” she said.
“Don’t move,” I told her, removing her arm from about me.
She ignored my instruction. She stepped to the side. Aethelbert’s aim followed.
“Meet me with your sword,” she said.
“I know the danger of your blade too well.” He thumbed back the doghead on the flintlock.
I hit him as his finger squeezed the trigger. My empty hand shoved the weapon into the air, but the pistol thundered near my head. He staggered back and fell beneath my impetus. My other hand brought a knife to his throat. I pricked him to draw blood. I couldn’t risk that he might be charmed against blades. I raised the eyepatch so that he could see me. He grabbed at my wrist, but the knife under his chin was firmly set, so that he risked cutting his own throat in a struggle.
“I don’t wish to kill you. Order your men to surrender.”
“We surrender! Drop your weapons.”
I hauled him to his feet. Ulthea came beside with her sword. Light showed through a new hole in the crown of her hat.
“Signal your ships to yield,” Ulthea ordered.
Before Aethelbert responded, an explosion hammered the atmosphere. The fire on Eadwig’s ship had reached the store of powder we had packed into the hold. The blast which ended the existence of Eadwig’s vessel ripped away the front of the Hound. Flaming debris tumbled through the air, littering the black glass and the deck of the Dragon Claw with fire.
Aethelbert laughed. “Your men will be too busy putting out the fires to turn their guns on the Badger. Your ship will be mine shortly.”
“You’ll be dead by then,” I said, pricking his throat for emphasis.
“Signal the Badger to yield,” Aethelbert ordered.
Although the signal flags went up, the Badger did not heed them. She discharged a broadside from the deck guns as well as from the row of guns below decks. I hesitated to imagine the carnage until I realized that she was too distant from the Dragon Claw to deliver a devastating volley. Although the decks were ablaze, Cedric was extending the sails. The strong wind coming down the channel shoved the Dragon Claw forward through the burning bits with enough speed to allow her to avoid the wreck of the Hound.
The Badger turned to match the maneuver. The ships drew close. Were Cedric’s guns charged? Had the Badger succeeded in reloading her cannon? We watched the two ships edging toward one another upon the black glass of the harbor. The Dragon Claw had the speed, but the flames on the deck were spreading to the sails to immobilize her. At nearly pointblank range, the first guns to sweep the deck of the other with grapeshot and shrapnel would carry the day. If they fired together, the more numerous guns of the Badger would prevail. Cedric’s only chance was to fire a killing blast before his enemy could complete the reload.
“Fire, Cedric,” I whispered.
“It’s going to be close,” Ulthea whispered back. She placed her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s too late,” Aethelbert sneered. “Your crew is lost. Your first mate is too slow to give the command, or perhaps your guns are empty. Your ship consumed by fire, and your crew eliminated. Even in defeat, I am victorious.”
I moved the knife at Aethelbert’s throat enough to draw another drop of blood.
He discovered the value of silence.
The side of the Dragon Claw erupted in fire. Smoke filled the narrow gap between the hulls. Men with swords and flintlocks swung from the rigging of the Dragon Claw through the roiling cloud to the deck of the Badger. The Badger’s guns did not respond. Soon thereafter, the foremast and mainmast of the Dragon Claw collapsed with a crash which sprayed sparks across the two decks.
“Take us closer,” Ulthea said.
Aethelbert relayed the command before my knife had to encourage him.
Furious battle waged upon the deck of the Badger amid the fire, smoke, flintlocks, swords, and torn bodies, but the veteran fighters of the Dragon Claw soon discouraged the craven gang of the guild. Cedric had crossed to the stern of the Badger and held a brace of pistols before him. Tureth stood near, relaying the progress of the fight to him and shouting the orders he gave.
We saved the Badger after she surrendered, but fire claimed the Dragon Claw. The flinty waves of the Obsidian Sea do not yield to bucket and pump.
Ulthea dictated terms to Eadwig and Aethelbert, which included the Badger and the Goad as replacement and reparation for the loss of the Dragon Claw in the unjust and unprovoked violation of the existing agreement with the guild, as well as a five year suspension of Ulthea’s obligation to pay guild dues and fees.
The Dragon Claw still blazed when Osric arrived. His ship skated in close to bring its guns to bear upon the Badger and Goad which stood side-by-side upon the black glass.
“Surrender to me, and I may not kill you, Guild Scum!” Osric cried from his deck.
His gun crews stood ready.
Ulthea sprinted to the rail and threw a grappling line into the pirate rigging. She swung across the gap, and I followed.
“Ulthea! I thought you must be dead. I saw the smoke from molats away. That flaming stain on the glass is the Dragon Claw, no?”
“It is. She’s done for, but I have two guild ships to take her place.”
“Og’s mogs. I should’ve known they couldn’t beat you. And dad?”
“If you’d open your eyes you’d see him there on the deck. Hold your fire, or you may kill him. Why are you here?”
“To save you of course. I didn’t want the guild to succeed where Oswald and I had failed. No one ship could stand up to three enforcer ships.”
“It’s not the ships,” I said. “It’s the captain.”
“I should’ve known that you’d be beside her, Wilfred.”
“No other man would’ve stood between me and fifty muskets on nothing more than the word of a scoundrel about a magic scarf. There’s no other man whose counsel doesn’t annoy me. I want him beside me always, if he’ll have me.”
I looked at Ulthea. “It’s the only place I want to be.”
“Not so unambitious as I thought,” Osric said.
We were married over the black glass by Cedric upon the scorched and bloodstained deck of the Badger. Osric did not join Ulthea in the enterprise, but she persuaded Aethelbert to give Osric five years to establish his own protector enterprise without interference from the guild.
Algar found me after the quick ceremony. He marked my face with four vertical lines. “That Ulthea will not see your ugliness, and so you do not wet yourself with joy.”