Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Frozen Moment: Part Four


                Waiting was tense. More tense than Valant would have liked. The Cobras had made no move to attack or to retreat from the Temptation, and forty of the forty-five minutes in her ultimatum had already passed. The Captain was tense. She tried to contain it, to show that she was not worried, but her brow constantly furrowed itself, despite her best efforts, and it looked as if her jaw might snap if she clenched it any further. Even Mr. Ghost, who had given control of the communications to a lesser crewman and returned to the bridge, attempted as little conversation with her as possible, to risk incurring her ire.

Like a pressured engine reaching its limit, the tension finally burst when a hiss came from the helm; the communications device sounding off again. Valant snapped forward for it so fast, Ghost was scare able to realise she'd moved until she had the equipment to her face. "What is it?", she demanded, with as much cool as she could muster. It only partially worked.

"A message, Captain, from the Cobra ship. A message for you".

Valant had no times for theatrics. "Speak, you fool! What message?"

"They say if we sail now, and leave them in our vapour trails, then they won't pursue us, and they won't blas... blast us into a thousand pieces... Captain". Valant's hands clenched around the machinery in her hands.

"And if I refuse?"

"...Then they'll leave nothing left of us to fall to ground" replied the deckhand, mustering as much courage as he could. His quivering voice betrayed him.

"No", said said simply, "tell them no. And to prepare to meet whatever awaits the overconfident on the other side!" She slammed the device back down onto its cradle with such force, Ghost was curious to see if it would ever work again. She wheeled on him, her face a dark vision of rage.

"Are the men prepared, Mr. Ghost?"

"They are, Captain, have been for forty ..." he looked to the timepiece on his breast pocket, "...three minutes".

She snarled. "What's two minutes between friends?" She turned back to the helmsman, briefly. "Take us to attack speed, sir. Now. Come about their aft". The soundless man at the wheel reached down and flicked the receiver of the two-way radio twice in rapid succession. After a short pause, the ship lurched as the Engine room complied with the code. She returned to face her First Mate. "Mr. Ghost, they have crossed and belittled the wrong woman today. Tell the men we give no quarter. Prepare the broadsides".

The tall man's face became very stern, instantly. "Aye, Captain!" he barked, "not one will live to tell of their loss today". He hastily left the Bridge and moved down onto the main deck, bellowing orders as the Temptation began to accelerate.

Across the yawning gap, the Cobra vessel began to move as well. Reacting to the sudden surge from the Temptation, she appeared to bring herself about further, but with a noticeable rise in altitude. She was slow, though; a symptom of her size. "Speed, Mr. Domm", she reminded her helmsman, " I want to be behind them before they're level with us".

Two more flicks to the Communication's mouthpiece followed her order, and a second later the wind whistled through Valant's hair a little more sharply. A stray strand here and there caught itself in the draft, dancing around her head, ethereal, whispery. Some might have said Angelic.

Yes. Angelic. I am the Angel of death for these poor bastards.

If the forty-five minutes waiting had been a lifetime, the 3 minutes it took to close the gap between the two ships was momentary. The Temptation looked down on them now, floating some meters below, but rising quickly. The helmsman brought them about, and slowly they moved past the side of the ship and began to approach her aft.

Seemingly seconds before, she was gazing at the small figures of men from afar, toy soldiers on the deck of a wooden model, now she was gazing into the whites of the eyes of real people; real men, hardened sailors, ready to fight. Ready to die.

Valant nearly forgot herself. She cleared her throat and raised her voice.

"As you will, Mr. Ghost!"

Watching her from his position on the main deck, the First Mate only nodded, incrementally, then turned back to the crew around him. His bellowing voice was at odds with the tense silence.

"Ready yourselves, you dogs! Scared of dying, is that it!? Death is nothing but the next thing to fight!" The men barked back at him, bringing their sabres and pistols down on the nearest surface. A mixture of thuds and clangs added their voice to the salute. Ghost continued.

"We show no quarter!" He didn't wait for their response before drawing his pistol, aiming across the bow of the Cobra vessel and, as he squeezed harshly on the trigger, roared.


His pistol shot cracked out across the sky between the ships and through the main deck of the enemy ship, rapidly fading from view as the Temptation came about her aft. There was a scream as the bullet caught some deckhand, and a thud as he hit the wooden decking.

Mr. Ghost never lacked for accuracy, the Captain thought.

His shot was followed a second later by the crew lighting the tapers of the cannons. A great multitude of hisses rose up through the air, like newly forged steel in the rain, before they ignited the powder in the barrels.

The noise from the broadside was a sound no man, or woman, could ever prepare for. The explosion of noise from the simultaneous release of so many shells, like a dozen cracks of thunder at once, ripped from the barrels as they forced their charges out across the breach. The entire ship reeled back several feet as the shout burst out and the Engines tried to compensate for the sudden movement. Squalls of smoke burst out from the barrels with the cannonballs, rising and around the ship.

Across the way, the broadside connected with the enemy ship along the final ten meters of her starboard side, and along her stern. Wood ruptured and splintered as the charge burst through metal and board alike, ripping great chunks of wood and cladding from its holdings and throwing them both back into the ship and out into the open air. One lucky shot caught one of the waiting cannons. There was a spark, then a ball of fire and scream as the gunpowder ignited, lifting the cannon off its axel and through the hull above it, hurling it out into the sky, where it finally gave up and plummeted.

Across the stern, it was much the same. Glass smashed and wood caved in under the pressure of the cannonballs, which in many cases propelled themselves through the entirety of the ship and out the other side. Atop the stern on the bridge, sailors stepped gingerly away, lest the decking beneath them give way to the shot structure below their feet.

But it was the noise Valant always remembered. After the first shot is fired, there's nothing but ringing, buzzing in the ears. You feel disconnected from everything else around you; you are isolated from the madness and the chaos that has erupted, but you can see it all, smell it all, like some observing spectre. Then the ringing begins to clear, and you hear the shouting of the fight, the creaking of the wood, the screams and the moans of the dying. The smell of acrid smoke filled Valant's nostrils and she came to her senses.

I have no time to sympathise with the dead. I can sympathise with them when I join them. That ship is mine

She surged forward and drew her pistol as the enemy ship began to retaliate. On the stern, sailors and Officers fired pot-shots from bows and pistols. The crack of gunfire and thrum of arrows loosing shouted near her ear, and whispered from afar. There was a grunt, and one of her crewman standing near the helm staggered back. An arrow had ripped through his breast, and a dark stain was blossoming across his tunic. He tried to speak, but he only spat a mouthful of blood. Gargling, he fell back against the hull and sank to the ground. Valant left him.

As she moved, she pointed her pistol across the breach, in the general direction of the Cobra sailors, and pulled the trigger. She didn't stop to see if she'd hit anything, just kept moving to the gunwale.  She looked out at the Cobra ship, which had begun a turn to port in the aftermath of the first attack on her starboard bow. Gunfire and the whip of arrows still filled the air, but Valant's attention was drawn to something else. As the aft of the ship turned to face the Temptation, she saw exactly what she hadn't wanted to see.

A meter or so beneath a row of smashed glass, five slats were cut out of the wood, and from them poked snub-nosed barrels that Valant knew all too well.


Carronades were short, stubbed cannons used primarily for short-range combat. From a distance, they were almost useless, but close enough they were devastating.

Close enough, Valant thought, her mind racing. This is too close.

She turned to bellow an order to the helmsman. She heard herself screaming at the man to come about, but by then it was too late. With a sharp, short roar, the Carronades fired, the six guns spitting their ammunition the short distance to her ship. The Temptation rocked from the impact.

One of the cannons had been carrying chain and shot, Valant saw, grimacing. The ammunition, a crude design of two small cannonballs connected by a length of chain, had caught a bunch of rigging in its path before it finally wrapping itself around one of the ballast masts with a crunch. Wood splintered and caved. The tangled rigging strained and pulled, protesting, against the airsack they were attached to. With a moan of complaint, the stricken mast leaned against the pull of the rigging, drawing it taut. The rigging would not comply, however, and their competing forces drew the mast to a halt. For now. Above, the ballast balloon--one of several--swayed and grimaced, but remained.

Valant watched it for a moment, worried, before grabbing back onto the Gunwale, keeping low. She risked looking away from the ballast for a second to survey the rest of the damage.

At least one of the other cannons had been loaded with grapeshot, she saw. Grapeshot, designed to kill men, converted the cannon into a giant scattershot, launching smaller, densely packed charges at the crew. A lot of her crew were clutching small wounds in their legs and arms, whilst others writhed on the decking, their faces obscured by hands and masks of blood. The Captain presumed only one cannon had been loaded with the deadly grapeshot, as for every man writhing in pain, two more resumed the fight. Amongst them was her First Mate, unloading another shot at anything unlucky enough to be his target.

"Mr. Ghost!" She cried out above the noise of war. The pale man spotted her approaching and moved through the haze and fog of the battle to get closer.

"Captain!" He shouted, "what are your orders!?"

"There's no matching them for power, sir! Closer! Tell the men to prepare another broadside, and to prepare to board!"

The gaunt man looked briefly shocked, "board!? We'll have to come alongside them! If they manage to fire a broadside, we're done!"

Somewhere nearby, the dull thud of a hand-cannon could be heard. All around them men were shouting and moaning.

"Then we shall have to fire first! We are faster than them, in body and mind! Tell the men!"

The man nodded his nod, and started barking orders again. Across the deck, cannonballs rolled into barrels and were pushed further in by waiting crewmen. Satisfied, Valant returned to the bridge.

"Mr. Domm, take us to them, side to side. Ram them if you must, but get us close enough to board".

The helmsman clucked in his strange way, his hand moving to the side of the helm. He flicked once, twice on the receiver, paused a second, then flicked once more. The engines below decks gave a groan that could be heard from where they were stood. Valant wondered if they'd been damaged in the attack. If they had, it wasn't enough to stop the ship accelerating.

The helmsman gave a tug on the wheel, and the Temptation lurched sideways, drifting across the gap between the two ships. The Cobra vessel had turned to engage them properly, so the two ships were now side-to-side. Aboard the enemy vessel, men backed away from the gunwales in panic, anticipating the Pirate's next move. From the foredeck, Valant heard the bellow of "FIRE!" from her First Mate, and then the returned cry from the cannons as they fired, their thunder cracking across the space, above the noise and confusion of the battle.

The broadside blasted through the gun decks of the Trade Ship. Some charges caught cannons, sending them up in blusters of fire and smoke, whilst others just caused carnage, spraying splinters of wood across the deck. It had provided Valant with the single moment's advantage she needed. In the confusion, the enemy ship had lost its organisation, and failed to return fire. Now it was too late. Valant grabbed tighter to the railing and braced herself.

With a crash and several huge thuds, the two ships collided in mid-air. Aboard the Temptation, the crewmen held onto whatever they could find for support as the ships joined, scraping and bumping along one another. Aboard the Cobra ship, men were less anticipant. Some were thrown from their feet whilst others, unluckier still, were thrown from the sides to their deaths. The crew of the Temptation wasted no time; armed with cutlasses, maces, and bits of broken wood, her men breached the gap between the two, digging their fingers into the splintered hull of the Cobra vessel and hauling themselves up and onto her deck. Others threw grappling lines across, whilst two men manned harpoons at fore and aft. With a reeling thrum, the giant iron bolts launched. They broke through the wooden hull of the Trade Ship, embedding themselves deep and locking the two together.

With a final order of "Keep her steady, Mr. Domm!" Valant joined her crew. Placing one foot on the gunwale of the bridge, she forced herself up and over the railing and across the small gap, drawing her long, thin rapier as she did. She landed lightly on the aftcastle of the Trade Ship, amongst a still-shocked group of men. With no more warning, she launched herself at the nearest; a fine, sharp thrust the chest, and the men was dead before he knew what was happening. She gave him no thought, withdrawing her blade and whirling onto the next one. Across the way, others on the aftcastle of the Temptation followed her lead, leaping the gap to assist their Captain.

Battle was joined at last. Down on the foredeck of the Trade Ship, Valant's crew had taken them by surprise. Everywhere she looked, sabres were locked, and the clamour of sword fighting, the crack of pistol fire and the screams of death filled the air. She could smell them, like she could smell the smoke from her cannons. It smelled like battle. It smells like victory.

Above her, she spotted a man in the rigging aiming down at her, his pistol cocked and ready. In a moment of blind panic, Valant froze.

There was a shot. The man in the rigging gave a grunt, then a scream as he fell from his perch on the main brace. Several dozen feet below on the deck, he impacted with a sickening, satisfying, thud. He arched his back, his scream a silent widening of the jaw, then went slack. Valant breathed a long, composing breath. At her side, Mr. Ghost's outstretched arm held his smoking pistol victoriously. Valant looked up at him, a modicum of gratitude written on her features, then past him. She released the shortest of gasps, causing Ghost to follow her gaze to across the breach and back at the Temptation. He muttered a curse.

With the collision, the precariously balanced rigging on the Temptation gave out its struggle. With a mighty crack, the main rope supporting the mast snapped to the floor, catching one of the crewman full in the face. It lifted him from his feet, sending him sailing across the decking. The force of the blow, however, saw that he was dead before he hit the ground.

With no more opposing force, and with the rigging holding the main brace broken, the mast vaulted back on itself suddenly, pressing fatally into the already stricken gassbag. As Valant watched in horror, the ballast, forced by the ailing mast, pushed free of its rigging and then, under continual assault from the wooden beam, split down the centre. The ripping sound was heard above the noise of the fighting, and the two opposing groups halted their struggle to watch. A great gale of air burst from the broken balloon, gusting warm air into the combatant's faces. With no more support on one side, the Temptation sagged viciously to starboard, pushing the Trade Ship into leaning inwards as well, towards the damaged Pirate Ship.

This drift propelled the mast through the wreckage of the ballast with greater force and, with one finally groaning cry, it split itself from its base fully and hurled itself across the deck of the two airships. Railings and decking shattered as it came down across them, many men flung clear by the shaking of the impact. Some others, unluckier, were caught beneath the fallen beam.

My ship... Valant paused a moment, unsure. Ghost looked to her. She felt his gaze on her, and was vaguely aware he was calling to her. My ship ... but not my victory!

"Mr. Ghost!" She said. Her voice was of stronger steel than any of the blades around her. "They have damaged my ship. They have crossed Temptation. We take the Captain, we take the ship". She looked to him, her hand gripping tighter on the hilt of her blade. "We take it now".

He said nothing, nor did he give anything away, but when she moved to the stairs and away from the aftcastle, she heard his light footfalls and knew he was following her.

The shock of the collapsing mast had soon worn off, so as Valant and Ghost made their way down to the main foredeck, the fighting had resumed in earnest, and the sounds of battle once more rang across the sky. She fought her way down the stairs, the pale man with her at every step. They cut, thrust and riposte their way from the aftcastle and onto the main deck. Despite the distraction, or maybe because of it, her men fought with vigour and determination, and it was clear to see that the Trade ship crew were being pushed back. Valant raised her voice, cutting down another man as she did so. She cried.

"Who amongst you is Captain of this sorry whale!?"

The response was almost immediate. From the centre of the fracas, a man broke from a cluster of sailors that had so far resisted her crew's assault. He was dressed in clothes that befit a higher rank of Officer. He had done away with his Dress Coat as the battle had raged, but he still wore a pale brown, full length waistcoat, embroidered and trimmed in gold. The chain of a pocket watch looped from one pocket to the other, and at the bottom of his breaches dark black, formal boots gripped him to the upper calf. They were badly scuffed from battle and caked in dust and blood, like the rest of his uniform.

The battle did not stop for them. He did not stop, either. He closed the distance between them and swept his blade at her. The sword, already drawn and soaked in the blood of its victims, gleamed in the high sun. Valant stepped nimbly to one side and brought her rapier against his bigger, flatter blade. She drew her rapier down to his hilt and, with all her strength, locked him there. He looked up at her, and finally spoke.
"I have that honour, you vagrant". His voice, despite everything, was calm and collected. "If you wish to demand my surrender, you'll find it at the end of my blade".

"I do not want your surrender, sir. I want your ship and your cargo". He struggled against her blade, but she held him fast. "You have damaged my vessel, and for it I will have your life. At the end of my blade is vengeance, Captain. At the end of my blade is your death".

She drew away from him, darting back. He anticipated her and followed forward with his sword, swiping through the air inches from her face. He composed the swing well, and quickly gave chase.

Their swords rang out as they danced back and forth across the deck, criss-crossing between other combatants, ducking under rigging, swords, gunfire, emerging through clouds of dust and smoke. Still they fought. He had the advantage of power, both physically and in his larger weapon. His blows rained down hard, and Valant was forced to dodge and weave, rather than facing him directly. They both tired from the exchange; once his sword glanced too close for comfort, another time he nicked her cheek; a bead of blood caught on the end of his blade.

He smiled a beleaguered smile. She glared.

They were standing alone now, on the forecastle. On the main deck, the battle continued; the Pirates were greater in skill, and were pressing down on their enemies, but the Traders were determined and well armed. Defeat would have to be wrenched from their dead hands.

Suits me, just fine, Valant thought. She looked her opponent over. He was hunched forward, and was panting heavily, moreso than her; the blade in his hands becoming more and more like dead weight as their battle continued. She ached, every muscle in her moaned in exhaustion, yet her rapier still felt light and nimble in her grip.

He came at her again, swinging his blade down at her with uncharacteristic sluggishness. She moved aside with ease. Exhausted, but not to be outdone, the Trader Captain swung to the side, following her. She ducked underneath it, barely exerting herself, and thrust out her slender needle at his leg. He pulled away at the very last moment, but the blade still sliced through his breeches and caught him along the skin all the same. She withdrew the rapier just as quickly as it had jutted out.

The Captain roared in frustration. He raised his blade above his head, blocking out the afternoon sun. In his eyes, Valant could see an anger, a fury. It was a rage that her she knew well. She always spotted it in the eyes of the nobility, those better than her. She hated it. She hated him. His scream reached a crescendo and his fingers twitched around the handle of his blade as he made to swing the final blow.

With breathtaking speed, the rapier darted through the air. There was a popping sound, then nothing for a moment. That moment seemed an eternity to Valant, but then, finally, the chop of the Captain's blade embedding itself in the wooden deck behind him broke the tension. The bubble burst. Valant saw.

The rapier had pierced his throat below the Adam's Apple and emerged, glistening, from the other side. A full four inches of metal protruded out of the back of the man's neck, from a hole the size of a finger nail. The Tradesman's mouth was still open in his furious scream, but was now silent, save for a few miserable half coughs. The rage was gone from his eyes, replaced with a wide, wet shock. His pupils were tiny specks of black against a sky of white, and then they saw no more.

Valant slid the blade from the man, and let him fall backwards to the floor, where he landed in an ungainly heap. The Pirate rose and looked over him.

"At the end of my blade, Captain", she said to his corpse, "is my victory".