Chapter 3 - The Drowning Cage
Close to the knot, a nimble-looking black yacht floats high in the water. It is constructed from hard black planes seamlessly welded together. A fibre yacht: a king's vessel. The standard of the gilded palace hangs at the mast: a black banner – crossed swords on a shining disk of flame. It's the same standard that is embossed on the leather armour his captors wear. The vessel looks big enough to be seaworthy, small enough to manage single-handedly. Oh to steal it, and sail the free oceans.
A flash of white against the mountain attracts his attention. A bird. Amongst all the bustle of the harbour, it seems special somehow. It races down the mountain towards the drowning barge, as though heavy, as though it is falling. Against the dark rocks it appears luminous. For a moment, the father envies it.
The bird comes up fast on the barge, flicking over the water, killing speed. The kingsmen look up from their cards as it strikes the tarred deck, a dove on a raven. Its claws skitter over the wood, and there is a heavy metallic chink - the unmistakable sound of money.
A silken purse is tangled round the bird's leg. It bears the crest of the king. It has pealed open just a little, revealing the barest teasing glimpse of gold.
No one moves. The captain speaks first.
In a measured undertone, full of danger, he instructs his crew. "Aye lads. Look lively, spread out, circle it. Don't let it fly."
The two pilots stop hauling rope and quietly move to join the three kingsmen. The five of them encircle the bird, moving slowly so as not to startle it.
The old soak remains where he is, leaning against the drowning cage, sucking his bottle of brandy. "We're in for a show now eh, me old beauty."
One of the pilots nudges the other and speaks in an undertone. "That's gold enough to buy Lysa harbour."
"Aye," murmurs the other. "Twice over with change for a djinncraft."
The two pilots exchange a nod, and their knuckles tighten on the long bronze daggers at their belts.
"Easy lads," says the captain, "There's enough gold here for us all to share, if we can catch it."
"Aye, and for some of us to share in it a little more than others." mutters the old soak, still leaning up against the bars. His voice is low, but still loud enough for all the men to hear.
The captain notices the jibe. "We play our cards right and we all walk out of here rich and alive. Has everyone got a weapon?"
The silk cord tangles more tightly around the bird's leg as it hops across the deck. Now apparently unable to fly, it half hops, half flutters onto one of the slatted bars of the father's cage. Each hop is arrested by the weight of the gold and the cord wrapped around its ankle. The heavy purse bangs on the wooden bars as the bird flops down into the cage next to the father. It squats in the center of the cage, knees together, the purse trailing out behind it.
The captain addresses the father for the first time. "Oi, Cloudfall. Get it. Get it for us and we'll let you go. Captains honour."
The father says nothing. He knows all about captain's honour.
The captain, visibly frustrated, motions to the old soak. "You. Open the cage."
With a rictus smile, the ratty little man turns a key and opens the wooden box. The gate swings wide. Startled by the noise, the bird hops up, out of the back of the crate and onto the deck once more. The men move to circle it.
One of the kingsmen holds a piece of old fishing net. The two pilots hang back slightly. The kingsman drops the net over the bird, and immediately there is the quiet scraping sound of twin blades unsheathed.
The captain pivots, blocking a downward blow from one of the pilots with his club. The other two kingsmen draw their weapons and the deck suddenly fills with fighting men.
The old soak raises an eyebrow at the father, still crouching in the now open cage. "Looks like it's your lucky day eh? I'd say this was your cue, wouldn't you agree Cloudfall." Then the little man draws his weapon, hurls aside his half empty bottle and leaps, yelling into the melee.
Hesitantly, the father ducks through the open gate. He stoops to retrieve his wallet and the picture of his wife, then dives over the side. The fibre yacht floats at anchor about twenty feet off to port. The salt water burns the still fresh scars on his back. His clothes drag at him, but he makes his target, and with a burst of strength that surprises him he climbs the anchor rope, up onto the polished black deck.
He hauls on the halyard and the trim black sail slides smoothly up the mast. Hefting a machete, he severs the anchor rope. The little ship gains speed as a sudden surprising gust of wind disturbs the still air.
The drowning barge recedes. The men, nursing wounds but no longer fighting, stare in fury at the net. It holds nothing but an apple core. The captain fills his lungs and yells out one word: "Cloudfall!"
Atop the nearby cargo hulk, sailors take note. They stop their work, and lean over the side. Items and insults rain down on the little black ship, bouncing off the deck. The father ducks to avoid falling boxes and crates. A harpoon lances down and embeds itself in the polished deck, threatening to arrest the little ship's progress. Fibre dust founts into the air. The father chops at the harpoon before the rope can tighten and the yacht continues.
The black ship is now clear of the hulk, but arrows continue to rain down, perforating the sail. The father crouches behind the cabin and the arrows glance off the coach roof. A spark of light ignites on the deck of the hulk and a fire dart streaks towards the sail. Another sudden gust of wind knocks it from true and it fizzles in the water.
Then the little black ship is clear, out into the free clear waters, slicing uncontested over the sparkling sea.
High above the bay, on the side of the heathered mountain, a mouse and a boy look on.
"That was a pretty smooth move." The mouse makes tiny appreciative noises. "But he's on the water. How can we follow him now?"
"We don't need to follow any more. She is with him. Hop up."
The mouse scampers up the boy's body, settling into a familiar spot next to where his heart ought to be. "What, she's actually on the boat with him? Are you crazy? Blimey, I thought he was in trouble before."
Turning his back on the chaos in the water, the boy steps out and across the mountain.