The distinctive crack of phraxcannon rang out from the foredeck of the sky-pirate galleon. Moments later, I felt the Wind Zephyr shudder beneath me and, looking round, saw two phrax-propelled grappling hooks embedded in our aftdeck.
The chains they trailed jerked taut, and the Wind Zephyr came to an abrupt halt. From the galleon came shouted commands, and figures hunched over powerful winches began to haul us in.
‘Well, well, well, what have we here?’ a deep, growling voice boomed from the helm of the sky-pirate galleon as the Wind Zephyr clattered against its hull and was held fast. ‘A couple of cloud-manged ratbirds and a… what is that?’
Looking up, I saw a burly individual in a heavy flight-coat and old-fashioned tricorn hat descend from the helm and stride across the deck. With the tell-tale blotches on his face and neck, and his tufted ears, I saw that this individual was a mottled goblin. He stood at the balustrade as his crew, a wild-looking bunch of hammerhead goblins, flatheads and several hulking brogtrolls, pulled the three of us aboard.
‘What is that?’ the mottled goblin captain repeated, gesturing towards Kulltuft.
‘Kulltuft is a nameless one from the Nightwoods. He’s my friend and companion,’ I answered.
‘Well, just keep him under control,’ said the captain, ‘or I’ll have him chained and thrown in the brig.’ He smiled a sharp-toothed, wolfish smile. ‘You are guests of Captain Throg Skullbaiter and the crew of the Rainseeker,’ he announced, ‘and your vessel will be keel-chained until our current enterprise is concluded.’
Beside me, Captain Gart Ironside grimaced. The sky-pirate captain was informing us that the Wind Zephyr was to be secured to his vessel’s keel and would be towed in its wake on whatever this enterprise was.
‘We are honourable sky pirates,’ Captain Skullbaiter went on, ‘and we respect the code of the clouds. You will not be harmed during your stay with us - if you give us your word you will not attempt to escape. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, and if we’d let you go, you might have alerted the enemy.’
‘The enemy?’ I said, as around me the crew levelled their phraxmuskets at our chests.
‘The sumpwood stockade of the tallow-hats – a band of brigands and slavers who have been laying waste to this region of the midwoods for far too long.’
Gart and I exchanged glances. It seemed we had little choice. Captive though the Wind Zephyr was, the sky pirates had showed no sign of searching her and discovering our chest of treasure. We would do well not to provoke them.
‘We give you our word, we will not attempt to escape. But you, in turn, must agree to release us once your mission is concluded,’ Gart informed him.
The captain nodded. ‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘Now, I suggest you go below decks and take shelter in the quartermaster’s cabin, for we are about to go into battle…’