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BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


15.     TIDE OF THE GHOST FLEET

    Warning bells rang from crow’s nest towers amidst the tangled topmasts of floating Tortugos. Over the storm-washed ocean the Ghost Fleet of the Sorcerer of Night was encircling the debris island. Where mortal ships might be overwhelmed in the growing tempest the transparent galleons glided on ethereal currents and took their position with eerie co-ordination.

    The citizenry of Tortugos awoke and took to the heights. They shielded their eyes from the heavy thunder rain and stared at the dark armada that each lightning stroke revealed. Some panicked and some prayed. All were filled with fear.

    “What do we do, Blackthorn?” Tybald tan Throg asked the leader of Mars’ rebellion against the sorcerous First Men. “The island is surrounded. There is no hope of escape!”

    “I’m more concerned with how they found us,” frowned Princess Aria. She gestured to Ysilde nim Loret. “I’m worried that amongst whatever spells the Silent Sisterhood laid on her there’s something that lets them track her.”

    Tybald clutched his frightened sister in his arms. “There must be a hundred vessels out there, maybe more. How badly does the Sorcerer of Night want her back?”

    Oglok howled that the First Man clearly hadn’t enjoyed his recent encounter with Blackthorn.

    The battering gales lashed the roped mass of Tortugos, setting its jumbled mass creaking and groaning as it rocked on the rising waters.

    “To the Sign of the Waterworm,” Blackthorn decided. “We need to see Korzan.”

***

    The pirates’ tavern was packed with worried people, all dragged from their slumber or their revels by the sudden arrival of marauders more deadly than themselves. At first it seemed the crowd was a chaotic churning throng, all talking, all arguing, feeding off each other’s fear. A closer look revealed a hierarchy in the mob. Nearer the rear of the premises the lieutenants and senior bravos stood in disciplined knots, armed and watching each other. In the rear alcove the captains met.

    Captain Adaskas had the floor. “This is like it was back in ’22 when the Black Sorcerer sent his airships against us. He rained fire down on Tortugos and destroyed it. The island broke up into burning pieces that blazed for seven days before they sank. We need to get to our ships and cast off while we can. If we each break at once they can’t catch us all. Some will perish but others will escape.”

    “This isn’t like ’22,” Captain Maclast scorned. “Nor the time before that, when Night sent the bloodweed. That’s the Ghost Fleet out there, it is, and there’s nothing on water that can outrun it or escape it. Those that try will end up crewing those black hulks, dead men chained to galley oars for all eternity!”

    “The Ghost Fleet mayn’t come ashore,” insisted Captain Barassa. She smacked the back of one hand into the palm of another. “’Tis ancient lore. If we stay ashore they cannot harm us.”

    “But Tortugos is not ashore, is it?” Captain Kenned challenged. “We’re afloat now, no less than in our ships. Even if that old prohibition is more than a winter’s tale we’re at sea on this debris-isle as much as in our vessels.”

    “Flee,” insisted Adaskas. “It’s the only option. We break and run for the Arcadian shore and…”

    “In this weather? At the end of Windtide?” Maclast spat. “Anything trying to manoeuvre in that tempest is soon wrecked, before ever the Ghost Fleet stirs. Anything smaller than Tortugos herself would be overturned.”

    “Mayhap they just want tribute?” hoped Barassa. “They may not value silver and gold but we have slaves, captives. If we must we can draw lots between us.”

    Captain Numar pushed forward. He was not amongst the most senior captains so some looked askance that he dared to speak. “I know what we can offer ‘em,” he called. “It might even be why they’ve come. There’s a soldier came here, with a sorceress and a warrior Mock-man and others. Fled from Hyblaos, they were, and mighty eager to be here. Offer those travellers to the Ghost Fleet and see what happens.”

    Captain Korzan stirred from his chair. The other captains fell silent. “General Blackthorn, you mean? Him as captured the Casus Belli off you with less men than I need one hand to count? Him as you brought to Tortugos yourself to save your skin, is it, Numar?”

    The other pirate stood silent, trying to find words.

    Korzan turned away from him, dismissing him, and looked to the rest. “Might be that’s what the Ghost Fleet wants. Might be they’re here for any one of us. Or all of us. We all run here for refuge sometimes, where we can hide in the throng or depend on others misliking authority as much as we do. Don’t matter now. The Fleet’s here. We’re surrounded and besieged. What’s to be done next?”

    No captain dared offer an reply to Korzan’s rhetorical question.

    “I’ll tell ye then,” the pirate continued. “Is Blackthorn here?”

    The throng parted as Blackthorn and his companions arrived. “I’m here, Captain.”

    “Well then,” Korzan told the others, “I’d say we listen to the one and only man who’s faced down that Sorcerer of Night and lived to tell the tale.”

***

    A transparent vessel detached from the fleet that stood sentinel around Tortugos. It glided over the churning waters. No wave broke upon its hull. It ghosted in to berth at one of the outer wharves, taking station by the rocking jetty without need for ropes or anchor. A single being alighted to the wharf and moved over to the frightened men that stood sentry.

    “Take me to your chief,” hissed Vash-na-Koras in the voice of the damned.

***

    Silence fell as the wraith crossed the threshold of the pub, gliding through the jaws of the great waterworm to take up a central position before the captains of Tortugos. Vash-na-Koras was tall and thin, with long white hair that streamed as if he were underwater. He wore silver chainmail and carried a silver bastard sword across his back. On land he did not have the transparency of his fleet, although his skin was thin enough that his muscle and black veins showed beneath it.

    “What do you want?” Captain Korzan asked the emissary.

    “I am sent by the almighty Sorcerer of Night, Emperor of the East, master of life and death, adept of the darkest path. He has ordained the capture of the renegade General Blackthorn and his followers and the return of Lady Ysilde nim Loret. He has pronounced judgement on Tortugos that it be destroyed to the uttermost.”

    A rumble of consternation and a tinge of panic ran through the crowd. Korzan scratched his nose. “Destroyed, you say? And to the uttermost?”

    “The Sorcerer of Night will allow any here who wish to yield to sign the Pact Book. Those men may live.”

    “That’d be the document we sign in our blood, saying how we belong to Lord Erebus would it? Where we promise him our souls to save our skins?”

    “He will accept your surrender for all eternity,” Vash-na-Koras replied. “It is a kinder fate than you will face when the Ghost Fleet comes.” The chuckle of the dead was not a comforting noise.

    “So that’s your terms, is it?” Korzan checked. “We give you Blackthorn and the wench, we make our mark in your damned book, and you’ll leave us be?”

    “You will be allowed to leave this place. Tortugos will end. After that you will be instructed.”

    Korzan breathed hard. “Well… it’s a hard choice you’ve set us. It’ll take some thinking on. As ye can see, we don’t have just one leader here. Each captain reigns on his own ship, and here in harbour we must decide between us what’s to be done. We’ll need time to talk before we can give answer.”

    Vash-na-Koras stood silent for a long chilling moment. “You have until sun’s setting tomorrow,” he said at last. “Any man who wants to save himself may come then to the far wharf where I am docked. That is where you will bring Lady Ysilde and the rebels who stole her. Choose defiance and your souls will scream till the stars burn out.”

    “And my compliments to you too,” replied Captain Korzan with a bow.

***

    “Well done,” Blackthorn told Korzan after the wight had departed. “You’ve bought us the time we need. Next we’ll have to have privacy, unless you trust every man present?”

    “Clear out,” the pirate told the company at the Sign of the Waterworm. “I’ll call a general meeting again when there’s more to be said.”

    Captain Adaskas hung back. “When do we discuss doing what the Ghost Fleet says? You heard that thing. There’s ways to save ourselves.”

    “We’ll discuss it when ye’ve been back to your ship to look for your spine,” Korzan sneered. “Be off. I’ll call you when there’s news.”

    The crowd dispersed. There were angry mutterings as well as frightened ones.

    “You have the knack of command, Korzan,” Princess Aria noted. “How much further do you think you can keep them in line?”

    “I imagine there’ll be an assassination attempt by mid morning,” the pirate judged. “First direct challenge after lunch.”

    “We’d better get to work then,” Blackthorn said. “First off…”

    “We need to prepare for casualties,” Aria interrupted the General. “Ysilde, go with the women and set up a field hospital at the Bosun. I want lists of medical resources, another of who’s had practical experience with the injured, and an ordered plan for how the wounded will be taken there for care. You’ve been trained to a proper chatelaine’s duties for a fortress under siege?”

    “Yes,” admitted the surprised maiden, “but I’ve never…”

    “Here’s where we find out how much you learned from Lady Loret. Get to it.”

    Ysilde nodded. She steeled herself, commandeered half a dozen of the bar girls, and hurried off.

    “She’s only sixteen,” Tybald said.

    “Either she’s noble or she’s not,” Aria replied harshly. “Right now she’s got skills and training I doubt anyone else save me aboard this wreck has been taught. We need them. It’s time she stopped being a victim.”

    “I suppose, but…” She’s only my little sister, the lordling wanted to cry.

    The princess ticked off reasons on her fingers. “If she’s got something useful to do she won’t fret. If she actually does something useful she’ll feel better about herself – and she might save lives. And while she’s doing that we can talk freely without worrying about whether someone’s enspelled her to know what she knows. John, I believe you were about to reveal your plan?”

    The General disguised an admiring smile. “Okay. We’re going to need cabling. Copper, iron, lead, anything that conducts. We’ll need a lot of it. Strip out everything you can spare and some you can’t. Then we’ll want to adapt those big ballista-things some of your ships have. Oglok will take charge of that. He’s also got the knack of command, Korzan, albeit in a quite different manner to you.”

    The Mock-man roared that he was excellent at motivating a workforce to a full and diligent effort, although the exact terminology he growled in his own tongue was richer and layered with meaning.

    “How much do you have in the way of explosives?” Blackthorn asked Korzan.

    “I’d say a fair old stash if we pool everybody’s supply,” admitted the pirate.

    “Tybald, work with the good Captain and see what can be done about booby-trapping that wharf that the Ghost Ship’s returning to. Since Vash-na-Koras has been kind enough to announce his intention to moor there again we might as well mine it now.”

    The lord’s son hesitated. “Will conventional explosions even harm non-corporeal undead?” he worried. “I’ve heard that wights and the like just ignore conventional weapons. Bomb blasts go right through them.”

    “Which brings me to part two of that trap,” Blackthorn pushed on. “Princess Aria, what can you do to make sure that a Ghost Ship does notice the detonation?”

    “I’d say a thaumic aura round the explosives would make them more interesting,” the sorceress considered.

    “Good. Don’t overtax yourself though, because I’ll need the same on all the bolts for Oglok’s artillery.”

    “The plain harpoons won’t do much good,” Captain Korzan warned. “Now we have some excellent plasma cannons if her highness is able to…”

    “Plain harpoons are what’s wanted for now,” Blackthorn insisted. “Even if those were conventional warships out there they could blow this island to shreds. We won’t win this with a firefight, at least not the kind you’re thinking of. We’ll have to try something else.”

    Oglok suggested a range of unpleasant things he’d like to attempt on Vash-na-Koras.

    “Is that even physically possible?” the General wondered, shuddering.

    Tybald looked at the sullen mob waiting outside the tavern. “What if they just decide to truss us up and hand us over to the Sorcerer of Night anyhow?” he worried.

    “Then they’re fools,” Korzan replied. “The Ghost Fleet was sent to sink this place and see every man jack of us dead and damned, by our own choice or by force. Even if we somehow escape their noose this time, Tortugos is finished for now. We survived here until one of the First Men took the time to notice us. After that we’re done for.”

    “That’s how a lot of people feel, all across Mars,” Blackthorn pointed out.

    Korzan met his gaze. “Aye, I imagine it is. And they all keep their heads down and they all get ‘em chopped off one by one.” He looked back at the ramshackle tangle of wreckage called Tortugas. “There’s more than eight thousand souls caught here, General Blackthorn.”

    “The Sorcerer of Night doesn’t care,” the Earthman answered. “I do. How about you?”

    The pirate spat on his palm and held out his hand. “If I’m to swing then I’ll give the First Men the finger first,” he swore.

    Blackthorn spat likewise and shook. “Done.” He turned to look at the throng outside. “Get the ships ready for battle, Captain, but have a plan to evacuate this place straight after, to get everyone gone.”

    “And where will you be, General?”

    Blackthorn turned to the crowd. “I’ll be talking to them.”

    Korzan watched him go. “He has a way of getting to ye, don’t he?” the pirate admitted.

    “Yes,” confessed Tybald.

    Oglok grunted agreement.

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Princess Aria.

***

    “All is ready, puissance,” the Lord of Night’s minion promised the ruler of the East. He came forward, genuflected, and kissed the tip of the First Man’s staff. “The Ghost Fleet has the rebels surrounded and cut off, with no hope of escape. Vash-na-Koras has given them until tomorrow’s sunset to render up the Transition Sacrifice. He has demanded the Earthman in chains.”

    Incantrus Veil shifted uneasily. Night caught the unusual movement; puissant undead did not often fidget. “You have something to say, Veil?”

    “I do,” agreed the dark creature.

    “Then speak.”

    “Thank you, master. I am unsatisfied with Vash-na-Koras’ strategies in this matter. He has given the mortals too much time to prepare. He has underestimated Blackthorn. I have it on good authority that the Earth barbarian has a talent for taking no-win situations and… winning.”

    “Every preparation has been made, puissance,” the minion answered. The Incantrus was but newly returned to the Sorcerer’s hierarchies and had not made the allies that the wight admiral had. “Vash-na-Koras cannot fail.”

    The Sorcerer of Night considered. At length he shifted and turned to Veil.

    “Dispatch the kraken. See that Blackthorn does not win.”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 16: Tortugos' Last Stand
in which Blackthorn gives proper notice under the Articles of War and the Ghost Fleet invades anyway.

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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

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