Corsair Queen (8/8)

The Moon Serpent’s prow rose almost vertically in the ocean, and Rose swung back on the rope to reach the jutting serpent figurehead, holstering her empty pistol. Her booted feet jolted onto the silver fangs, and she managed to remain upright as the ship slowly sank into the ocean. She saw the stern half of the boat was almost entirely underwater, with only a few sailors crowded onto the topmost railing, so close she could likely have swung over to reach them. One of the survivors was Petyr Harker, and she felt nauseating hatred rise in her throat.

‘I did tell you I was just the sorta fellow to seek dramatic revenge in some stupidly elaborate scheme,’ Petyr chuckled. ‘Admittedly I didn’t quite see it turning out like this, but at least—’

Rose didn’t grant him a chance to finish, throwing the rope loop toward him like a lasso, and no harpooner had ever cast so perfect a toss. The loop snagged around Petyr’s neck like a hangman’s noose, but before he could lift it clear, Rose drew her cutlass and swung it high.

‘Say hello to Morrigan for me, Petyr,’ she snarled, and slashed down.

Her keen-bladed steel sliced clean through the block and tackle straining against the cannon’s enormous weight, and it immediately plummeted into the ocean. Rose had a brief second to savour the flash of horror in Petyr’s eyes before the towrope snapped taut and wrenched him from his lofty perch. His scream was cut short as he smashed into the water and vanished into the depths as the cannon dragged him all the way down.

Standing atop the serpent figurehead, Rose watched the Moon Serpent’s stern finally vanish underwater in a swirl of foaming waves and cracking timbers. The few sailors still clinging to the wreckage paddled frantically on the surface before the hungry suction of the shipwreck finally pulled them down with it, their pitiful cries swallowed by the merciless black depths. Looking down, she reckoned she had a few scant seconds at best before the sinking prow sucked her down too.

‘Shame to send summat so beautiful to the deeps,’ muttered a voice behind her, and Rose smiled.

She looked over her shoulder to see Jonny hunched over the oars of their approaching rowboat, soaked to the skin and covered in cuts, bruises, and bites. The storm lamp on the prow bobbed like a welcoming beacon of safety.

‘Thankee kindly, old man,’ she laughed.

‘I means the cannon,’ Jonny grumbled, rowing toward her. ‘A finer thirty pounder I’s yet to see.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Rose, ‘but it’s tradition, and you don’t go messing with traditions, right?’

‘Right indeed,’ Jonny grunted.

Rose clamped a hand to her aching ribs. ‘So where in the name o’ the Bearded Lady did you crawl off to? I needed you up on the damn deck when everything went to shit.’

Jonny shrugged. ‘Went below to fetch another bottle of rum. Ran into Morrigan’s crew fixing to get a-murderin’. They didn’t take kindly to being discovered and tried to cut my damn head off, but they was only measly sailors and I still had me bootknife. Managed to gut a few but had to jump out a gunport afore they shanked me good. Swam around to get our boat, getting feasted on by all nibblin’ beasties lurking ’neath the waves, thankee very much. But I’m here now, so d’you wanna come aboard or you planning to go down with the ship?’

‘This ship’s captain’s already gone with her,’ said Rose, stepping casually from the figurehead to the rowboat. She dropped into the bilges with a groan of relief as her knees crumpled under her. With her safely aboard, Jonny rowed them away from the doomed Moon Serpent as the figurehead and its topmost mast finally sank in a swirl of bubbles, rope, and broken spars.

Rose crawled to the rowboat’s stern, her breath hitching as she saw she wasn’t the only flotsam Jonny had recovered. A bloodied body in a lacerated coat of pale blue, golden cuffs and frayed bronze epaulettes lay slumped against the stern, barely wheezing.

‘Blaxton?’ Rose gasped. ‘She still alive?’

Jonny nodded. ‘Aye. Just about. She’s a blowhard, but she didn’t deserve to go down with scum like Morrigan. Didn’t feel right to just leave her to drown, right?’

Rose said nothing, too exhausted to do more than nod.

‘So you gonna tell me what in the eight seas happened up there?’ asked Jonny.

‘You’d never believe me,’ said Rose.

‘I’m guessing it was you that sank the ship firing the damn cannon into the deck?’ said Jonny.

‘Wasn’t me. What happened up there was all Morrigan’s doing,’ said Rose, with a flinty glare that told him not to ask anymore damn questions.

‘Fair enough.’

‘Though I did manage to retrieve this.’ She opened her clenched fist to reveal a disc stamped with three intertwined serpents of silver and brass.

‘Morrigan’s sigil,’ said Jonny.

‘Might not mean much these days, but we’ll see what happens when I show it to the rest of his crew once they’ve sobered up.’

Jonny grinned. ‘Well, at least this trip wasn’t a total waste of time.’

Rose slumped in the back of the boat and watched as the rearing crag of Moonshard Reef began to fade into the mist. She narrowed her eyes as she saw a lone figure crawl ashore and shake itself dry like a drenched dog, before shambling off over the jagged rocks. A hunched wretch in an expensive kraken-skin coat.

‘Thorne,’ she whispered. ‘Always the damn rats that survive a sinking ship.’

‘Eh?’ grunted Jonny mid-row. ‘Someone else made it out?’

‘No,’ said Rose, turning away. ‘No one worth saving.’

‘Huh,’ he bent back over the oars. ‘Like them old legends you’d hear: God creates Man. God creates Monsters. Man destroys God. Man rules the waves.’

‘Man wakes Monsters,’ Rose interjected, taking Blaxton’s clammy hand which tightened around her fingers. She smiled – two sisters-in-arms broken and battered, but still alive and kicking. ‘Monsters eat Man … Woman inherits the earth.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (7/8)

The sea exploded as Leviathan surged towards the Moon Serpent.

A tidal wave stagnant and rotten from reeking darkness washed over the ship, as a gigantic tentacle crashed into the deck. It smashed clear through the timbers, and the ship tilted wildly to port as the impossible extra weight pulled it over.

Rose fell against the railing and jammed her pistols home in their underarm holsters as the ship tilted downward. Crewmates screamed as they tumbled down the sloping deck or were thrown overboard. The tentacle ripped clear of the ship’s gaping side, and the ship violently righted itself. Rose looked up at the sound of splintering masts overhead. Sails flapped uselessly as the topmast and mizzen snapped like dry twigs, falling to the shattered deck below to crush a dozen men or more. More slimy tentacles slithered over the railing hungrily seeking out prey, snatching up doomed pirates and dragging them down into the endless crushing dark.

Rose struggled to her feet, hearing the groan of a keel bending under stresses it had never been designed to endure. Caulked timbers split and geysers of black water erupted all along the foredeck.

Rose turned to Morrigan, who clung to the bronze cannon that ought to have served as his tomb.

‘You did this!’ she yelled, as the looming shadow of Leviathan reared up from the water. The carved wooden railing smashed to splinters as another massive tentacle slammed down on the foredeck. Another swiftly followed, trailing a length of rusty chain that slithered with black, oily slime.

‘He’s not real!’ sobbed Morrigan, his shattered mind frozen by the horrific sight of Leviathan. ‘He’s just a story!”

‘Looks pretty damn real to me!’ Rose yelled over the cacophony of smashing wood, tearing sails, and terrified screams. Fiery heat washed over her as the immense nautilus heaved his colossal bulk over the gunwale and turned his slimy eyes upon her. She felt the clammy stench crawling over her skin, loathsome and invasive, as if the titan of the deeps could gaze deep into her very soul. She drew a pistol and fumbled another lead ball down the barrel. Clicked back the flintlock’s hammer. One shot’s all but useless.

But better than nothing.

The leviathan’s titanic weight heeled the ship over again, and Rose grabbed hold of the looped pulley ropes as the deck tilted crazily. The cannon scraped sideways as the block and tackle swung wildly, its knotted end straining to bear its colossal weight. The wooden pegs securing the wheels of the gun carriage creaked ominously.

Morrigan clawed his way along the cannon toward her. ‘I won’t go alone!’ he screamed. ‘If the ocean wants me, I’m draggin’ you down with me!’

The man was a lunatic, like the crippled sailors raving in Bloodhaven’s alleys with minds broken by the foulest rotgut. His fraudulent serpent caller robes had torn loose, and swinging from his neck on a leather thong was a silver-and-brass sigil of three intertwined serpents.

Swinging on the pulley, Rose tried to kick him away, battering at him with her pistol, but he had a madman’s inhuman strength, clawing at her throat with his free hand. Cracked fingernails drew blood, and she struggled to find purchase as the ship tipped over onto its side, its port side now completely underwater.

Far above them, Leviathan raised a gigantic lobster claw and smashed it down like a colossal woodsman’s axe. Its unnatural mass sheared through the deck amidships, crashing down through bulkheads, and Rose heard the thunderous crack of the keel finally splitting. The vessel’s stern rose up sharply, and the screams of Morrigan’s doomed crew echoed in the mist.

On the ocean we’re all equal, went the old saying, but right now Rose didn’t give a wharf-rat’s fart for those murderous, traitorous bastards.

Let them all drown!

The front half of the ship lurched upward with the force of the blow, then slammed back down onto the waves, tilting back upright as seawater poured into the bow section. The weight of it dragged the prow deeper underwater with every passing second. In moments, nothing would remain on the surface.

A body splattered onto the deck next to her; Morrigan’s tattooed daughter, Rose’s hairpin stiletto still jammed deep beneath her jaw. Oily black fluid spilled from her mouth and swirled into her sightless eyes.

With a groan of screeching timbers, Leviathan reached out for Morrigan with a massive suckered tentacle. His crushing grip curled around the treacherous captain’s torso and tightened. Morrigan clung fast to Rose’s waist with lunatic strength, like a lover’s embrace. His legs were entangled in the cannon’s bindings. She couldn’t shake him loose.

‘All because you wouldn’t pay the damn tithe,’ Rose snarled as Morrigan fought to cling on. He tightened his grip.

‘The ocean’ll take you as well as me!’ he screeched.

‘Not today.’ Rose reached out, her straining muscles screaming, and finally gripped the skull-pommel of the stiletto wedged deep in Tattoo-Face’s chin. She yanked hard and the blade slid free, gushing blood.

‘You want him?’ Rose yelled, reversing her grip on the weapon. ‘He’s all yours!’

She rammed the spike deep into Morrigan’s neck, driving it hard through to the other side. His head snapped back and Rose’s hand flashed out to snatch the leather thong from around his throat. His grip spasmed and the colossal titan wrenched him back just as Rose drew her pistol and aimed downward.

‘Go to Hell!’ Morrigan croaked through a dying mouthful of blood.

‘You first,’ Rose growled, and pulled the trigger.

With a thunderclap the shot snapped the rope stretched between them, the cannon’s block-and-tackle seesawing Rose clear away to freedom. Swinging wildly above the sinking wreckage, she watched as Leviathan sank back into the ocean, the screaming Morrigan wrapped tight in his slimy clutches. Finally the waves closed over them, a trail of frantic bubbles following them down as Leviathan returned to the darkness below with his latest bounty. As Morrigan was dragged down, Rose took vicious pleasure savouring the fading look of terror in his eyes at his horrific fate; condemned to an eternity in crushing darkness without even a pauper’s marker to his memory.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (6/8)

Rose surged across the blood-drenched deck toward her prey, but now the twins rushed past their captain to intercept her. She vaulted over the cannon and hammered both feet into the face of the tattooed twin. Razorscale teeth splintered under Rose’s iron-hard boots as the woman crashed backwards, sprawling like a broken ragdoll.

Rose landed with catlike grace and leapt aside as Crab Hat swung a monstrous sawtoothed club at her head. It smashed the deck boards to splinters, and Rose rolled seamlessly to her feet, hammering her daggered fist into the woman’s back. But the crab-shell armour was hard and smooth and the stiletto glanced off without penetrating.

Crab Hat wrenched the club from the deck and spun around, the weapon slashing just over Rose’s head. Her tattooed twin was back up, blood streaming down her many-eyed face turning it into a hideous grimace. She held a pair of punch daggers with razor-toothed sawfish blades, charging at Rose in a flurry of elbows and slashes. Rose tried to parry and dodge but only barely avoided each killing blow. She could hold her own in a fistfight, but she’d rather face a flintlock pistol over a pair of hissing daggers any day. By the time they’d backed up toward the cannon, Rose’s shirt was soaked in blood and she was seriously regretting her plan of hand-to-hand fighting.

From the corner of her eye she saw the armoured twin winding up for another killing strike. Outnumbered two to one, this fight would only end badly for herself.

Tattooed Eyes slashed her dagger low, and Rose grunted as it sliced a stinging line of fire across her upper thigh. She dropped to one knee as a reverse stroke hissed for her throat. She lifted her arm to parry …

And the slashing blade clunked against the thin iron rods specially woven into her forearm sleeve. The impact sent searing bolts of pain jarring up Rose’s arm, her sliced coat sleeve flapped uselessly, but the blade had been halted before it bit flesh.

Her opponent’s eyes narrowed.

‘Grisham and Sons, Battle Tailors since 1485,’ Rose quipped, and rammed her stiletto up through the soft flesh on the underside of her foe’s jaw. Her eyes flew wide in shock, and Rose saw the black needle of the blade behind her razor teeth as it punched upward into her brain. She convulsed wildly, the daggers clattering to the deck.

Rose kicked the dead body away as her twin screamed in anguish.

Stiletto versus warclub — bad odds. Really bad odds. Rose risked a glance behind her.

Cannonball dent in the right side…

This was her chance to even those odds.

The armoured twin launched herself at Rose in vengeful fury, her huge, toothed club rising up for a killing blow. The weapon chopped down in an executioner’s arc —

Rose dived aside.

The iron head of the club smashed apart the sea chest behind her. She spun inside the twin’s guard and drove her blade deep into a gap between the crab-shell armour plates. The woman grunted and stumbled backward, tearing the hairpin from Rose’s hand.

Rose turned and began frantically searching through the shattered ruin of the chest, sweeping aside dented knives, brass knuckles, and iron-tipped cudgels.

‘C’mon, c’mon, where are you …?’ she hissed, hearing the scrape of a club being lifted from the deck. A broken handle, a bent blade. Useless, useless …

Had one of the twins hidden them someplace else, hoping to hoard them for themselves?

No, no, no …

And then her palms closed on the smooth, ivory-handled grips she knew better than anything.


Rose ripped the twin pistols free and thumbed back the hammers. She twisted and dived to the side, both barrels flaming in a blaze of shot.

Crab-shell armour was proof against blades and hooks, but against pistol shot, the tattooed woman might as well have been stark naked.

Red-hot lead balls smashed through her armoured torso and she toppled over the cannon, blood pouring from the two gaping holes through her chest. Blasted with both barrels. Dead before she even hit the floor.

Rose lurched to her feet and tensed as she felt the roll and sway of the deck change. It was a subtle change, almost unnoticeable, a change in the angle of the anchored ship’s prow as the swell of the vast ocean shifted

‘Oh, now that’s not good …’ she said, as Morrigan limped toward her, distraught at the sight of the dead twins.

‘You killed them!’ he cried.

Rose fired a shot into each of his kneecaps. ‘That’s for all the captains you murdered tonight.’

Morrigan screamed, writhing on the deck. He wept and feebly tried to swing his billhook at her. Rose easily batted it aside and jammed a pistol under his chin.

‘Any last words?’ she growled. ‘Now this really is your funeral.’

The deck shifted again, and a deathly silence fell over the ship.

Even the wounded seemed to recognize the strange quality of the darkness closing in around them as a deep rumbling sound rose up from the depths. Rose sensed fearful tremors shivering through the ship’s gnarled timbers, the surviving crewmates staring out in hushed awe.

‘What’s happening?’ she demanded, jabbing the pistol harder into Morrigan’s throat as unease churned through her. ‘What else did you plan tonight?’

‘This here’s none of my doing,’ wept Morrigan, and despite his obvious agony, he began to laugh – the hysterical, broken chuckles of a man who knew his hour of reckoning was nigh. ‘My bill to the sea is long overdue. And you’re gonna pay it with me …’

Rose had felt something like this in the bones of a doomed ship once before.

Nine years ago, just north of Bloodhaven and making the last circling sprint to the inner bay. They’d been returning from a bounty run up by Drakkengate and spotted a smuggler running a slimmed-down carrack out of the Ironwater coves, fleeing the Serpent Isles laden with loot.

She still remembered the mournful rumble of the titanic serpent horns as they echoed over the ocean, and the gnawing terror as her crew watched an abyssal kraken rear up from the waves to smash the carrack to matchwood and drag all aboard down to their watery deaths.

The shift in the deck as the kraken had passed under their ship felt just like this.

She ran to the gunwale, frantically scanning the fog and choppy waves.

The sea swirled around the crags of Moonshard Reef, dark and keeping their secrets. No one knew just how deep it got around here, but any ship that sank out this way was never seen again, never washed up on the isles.

What’s out there?

And then she saw it.

Two hundred yards out, huge and unyielding, a titan rising from the deep.

The vast dome of its bulbous, slimy carapace broke the water, twin eyes glowing like the orange blaze of a smelting furnace. Seawater boiled around its head, frothed to madness by the dark miasma surrounding its wavering outline, and leaving an oily slick in its wake.

Its body was huge, the vast heaving mass festooned with chains torn from countless sunken vessels. A colossal, hook-bladed anchor was embedded deep into its carapace, garlanded with rotten black seaweed from the deepest, darkest abyss.

Rose’s mind refused to process what she was seeing.

This is impossible.

It was a dark nightmare come to life, a scare story told around the beer-soaked tables of the wharf-side taverns by drunken rakes hoping for a free drink. She knew its name, had even laughed at the impossibility of such a legend’s existence.

But here it was, rising from the ocean with booming, ponderous strides. The drowned tallyman come to claim the ocean’s due. Even his name was said to be a curse.

‘Leviathan …’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (5/8)

That she wasn’t dead was Rose’s first shock.

Her second was that the Moon Serpent was still afloat. A cannon blast that large ought to have holed the ship all the way down to the ocean, and broken its keel in two.

Her ears were filled with a high-pitched whine, maddeningly shrill and muffled at the same time. She rolled onto her side, wincing as she felt blood trickle down her arm. A dull awareness of foggy, distant sounds echoing from behind made Rose turn her dazed head.

A scene of utter carnage, worse than anything she’d seen in a long time. Exactly why the ship wasn’t sinking.

The cannon had been primed with grapeshot.

A devastating load designed to tear and maim flesh but leave a vessel intact, it had worked its lethal power of jagged shrapnel with horrifying effect. Rose’s mad dash toward Morrigan had carried her mostly clear of the wide spray of red-hot fragments, but the other captains weren’t so lucky.

Where once there had been a crowded quarterdeck, now there was a butcher’s yard.

Men and women lay shredded across a quarterdeck drenched with gore. Those closest to the cannon were almost unrecognisable, transformed from living, breathing human beings into torn scraps of bloody meat swept across the deck, snatched into oblivion by the pitiless storm of metal. Shorn arms and legs lay scattered in twisted heaps; it was nigh impossible to tell which limb belonged to which corpse.

Worse still, not everyone was dead. Those captains toward the rear of the doomed throng writhed in agony, bleeding from scores of deep lacerations and screaming the name of the Bearded Lady, their wails dulled through Rose’s bleeding ears.

Blaxton lay motionless in a lake of widening blood, her fine blue coat torn to ribbons as if someone had given her a hundred lashes from a barbed cat-o’-nine-tails. Thorne slithered out from beneath her body, and with the luck typical of that lowlife, it looked like he’d escaped the worst of the blast using Blaxton as a human shield.

Jonny! Where’s Jonny?

Rose couldn’t see him anywhere amid the charnel house, and icy fear crawled through her veins. He must’ve survived, he’s Jonny. He survives everything.

Doesn’t he?

Then her dazed eyes settled on a figure lying sprawled against the railings, bloodied but mostly unhurt.

Petyr Harker.

He grinned back, and sizzling hate churned through Rose as she knew that somehow, that smug, conniving sea-slug had known about Morrigan’s ghastly trap beforehand. He had to have been part of setting it up; a glittering silver-tongued lure for captains who didn’t know him well enough to send him packing.

The deck hatch swung open, and the skeleton crew that had sailed them out to Moonshard Reef spilled out with hooked gutting knives to finish what slaughter their vile captain had begun. They drifted lazily among the dying seamen as if in a languid dream, skewering bellies and cutting throats with sadistic relish. The cruel blades flashed down. Again. Again. Surging anger blazed through Rose and she forced herself upright, blinking through tears of pain. The hellish sounds rushed back in, and her vision cleared.

You’re alive, dammit! Do something!

The screams of the dying drove her onto her feet, gripping her hairpin spikes with white-knuckled fingers. Morrigan stood safely behind the smoking cannon, arms aloft and surveying his bloody handiwork with the glittering eyes of a true zealot. Rose’s eyes narrowed like a shark scenting blood. She raised her makeshift stilettos once more.

You’re still fighting. Now kill that rat bastard dead!

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (4/8)

The ship sailed eastward out of Bloodhaven Bay, taking a gently curving route to avoid the many jagged reefs, treacherous sandbanks and jutting wrecks that could see a ship foundered. The fog Blaxton had spotted had fully enveloped them now, and the ship sailed in almost dead silence, interrupted only by the occasional shout between the skeleton crew.

Despite the awfulness of the rum, Rose, Jonny, and the other three captains gamely toiled their way through the rest of the bottle. After a couple more shots the sweetness became bearable, and Rose felt her mood lightening.

With the bottle empty, Jonny threw it overboard and disappeared below deck to find another. Rose held onto the gunwale rail as her vision spun. The rum was bad, but it sure was strong. Time to ease up.

The Moon Serpent sailed onward, deeper into the muffling fog. Suddenly a distant voice called down from the crow’s nest. ‘Land ho!’

‘About damn time,’ Petyr slurred, taking another slug of rum.

Rose fought the laughter bubbling up from her gut as she heard the clatter of iron chains spilling off the deck, swiftly followed by the heavy splash of an anchor.

‘We’re here,’ Thorne grunted, spitting a black phlegm of tobacco overboard. Rose peered through the mist, glimpsing a craggy spur of basalt-black rock rearing out of the water. Salt crystals glittered in the pale starlight.

‘Moonshard Reef,’ she murmured. ‘Why in the name o’ the Lady’s Beard are we here?’

Petyr shrugged. ‘Morrigan always claimed he was part mermaid on his ma’s side.’

‘Horseshit!’ scoffed Thorne. ‘The man’s never even seen a mermaid, let alone been birthed from one.’

Blaxton scratched her temple. ‘Makes for an exotic tale though. Mystic origins, magical blood, that sorta thing. Kind of backstory every captain wishes they had. Wish I’d thought of it.’

The heavy thump of wood silenced further mutterings; Rose turned to see the serpent caller hammering the foredeck with his tentacle-wrapped billhook. In his other hand, he held a flaming torch that burned with a brilliant silver light.

‘The sea is this world’s cemetery, and its souls sleep best without everlasting monument,’ he rasped, his voice a grating hiss through the coral mask. ‘All other graveyards show the marks of distinction between great and small, rich and poor — but the king, the fool, the prince, and the peasant alike are all the same to the ocean’s embrace. Now, fellow seafarers heed my words … time to pay the ocean its due!’

‘About damn time,’ Rose grunted. ‘Let’s get this done and go home.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ grinned Petyr, raising a battered mug.

Rose and the other captains gathered before the vast wax-stoppered cannon as the serpent caller’s gaze swept over them all. She felt the potency of the rum sloshing through her, and saw a number of the other captains swaying with more than the motion of the ship.

Where in all eight seas is Jonny?

She didn’t want any more rum. She just wanted him here by her side.

The twins who’d confiscated their weapons hauled a block and tackle over to the centre of the foredeck. An enormous hook on a thick rope loop was lowered and secured to the cannon’s lifting ring, just behind the oiled fuse.

‘What a waste,’ Blaxton sniffled, dabbing tears from her cheeks.

Rose glanced aside. ‘I didn’t realise you and Morrigan were close.’

‘What? Gods, no! I mean the cannon. That’s an Orban thirty pounder.’ Blaxton’s voice was hushed with awed reverence. ‘Prob’ly only a handful left afloat. One hit from that would punch a hole clean through an Imperial warship from stem to stern. Crying shame to see it go to waste.’

Even Rose had to grudgingly agree the ornate bronze cannon was far too good a casket for the likes of a miserly soul like Morrigan. Was that a final insult to those left behind, that his most beautiful weapon would serve as his tomb and never belong to anyone else?

Something niggled about that, though — a nagging feeling she was missing something.

Crab Hat secured the hook to the cannon, then she and her twin stood back as the serpent caller began to speak: ‘Captains of Bloodhaven, it does my heart proud to see so many of you here today,’ he croaked. ‘The best and worst, the scum and the cream of our shore’s reaver-kind.’

A few mutters rippled among the captains at so harsh an opening, but serpent callers were known to be touched by the Bearded Lady, and their ways were unknowable to most people.

‘Our fair isles stand at a pivotal moment in their history, and many paths lead into the future, as tangled and inconstant as the many limbs of Nagakabouros … but I have seen the way forward! On many of these paths, I see the peaks and coves of the Serpent Isles ablaze, its people dying as our enemies close in. But on one path, one singular path, I see us proud, stronger than ever, a united people under a single great leader!’

Rose frowned. Yes, the serpent callers were a strange bunch indeed, but this was far beyond anything she’d heard any of them say before.

‘You have gathered here to witness Captain Morrigan laid down to the depths, a man whose boots none of you were even fit to lick. A man of vision and purpose, a man who knew what needed to be done!’

The twins began hauling on the pulley ropes to lift the immense cannon, their muscles bunching and straining as the cannon’s rear end, gun carriage and all, began lifting from the deck. The barrel tilted downward, and were it not for the waxed stopper, Rose felt she could have peered right up its length to see Morrigan’s pickled shrunken corpse.

‘You all have failed Nagakabouros!’ The serpent caller spat. ‘You all have fought and betrayed one another, like wharf-rats squabbling over a copper sprat. None of you has the vision to raise a fleet like the ones of old and make Bloodhaven ruler of the waves! You all throw your coins and your tributes into the water, and for what? For safety? A blessing? No, it’s a sacrifice you’re offering, a blood price for the ocean to lend you its mighty wrath. But what does the ocean care for feeble copper coins or the smallest fish of the catch? No, for Bloodhaven to prosper anew, it needs a red tide of offerings!’

Rose surreptitiously glanced around at the other captains to see what they thought of the serpent caller’s ravings, but clearly the rum had numbed them to just how insane this sounded. She felt eyes upon her and saw Petyr staring right at her.

He gave her a terse smile, and her unease ratcheted up several notches as he inched toward the gunwale.

Rose looked back up the cannon barrel.

Icy dread shivered down her spine.

‘Oh no …’

She ran toward the foredeck, tearing off her hat and reaching up to pull out twin stilettos masquerading as hairpins. Each was a slender needle of blackened steel with a rounded skull-pommel, and she knew just where to stick them to kill a man stone dead.

‘So I offer the sea your blood, your sacrifice!’ screamed the serpent caller, tearing off his mask and hood so everyone could see him. So everyone would know who had brought them here to die.

Rose saw a grey-bearded face furrowed by old age and aglow with madness. A long scar bisected his leathery face from right eyebrow to left cheek, and the wisps of his beard were twisted into thin braids entwined with pearls and fishhooks. His eyes were the eyes of a man who never paid a kraken if he could spend a sprat. Who skipped out on the ocean’s tithe on every voyage.

A man she knew from reputation and decades of bloody legend.

The very man they’d though dead and pickled inside his own cannon.

‘Morrigan, you treacherous bastard!’ she yelled.

Time slowed, Rose’s leaden heartbeat like the slow tolling of the bell upon the Widow’s Manse whenever a ship was lost to the ocean. It felt like she was wading knee-deep through sticky guts that choked the carving bays of the Slaughter Docks.

‘You’re too late, Captain Rackham!’ Morrigan cackled. He swept the torch down to the cannon’s fuse, and roared in triumph.

Rose pulled back her hand to throw one of her stilettos. A last, desperate gamble.

I won’t make it!

The silver flame lit the oiled touchpaper.

And Rose’s world exploded in a deafening blast of fire and thunder.

© 2021 | Tom Burton