The black ship cut through the night.
Slap slap slap. Her black sails flapped like the wings of a giant bat and stiffened in the chill hands of the bitter wind.
Hisssss. Her silver blades sliced the surface of the thick ice, spitting up large frozen chunks as it passed.
Crack. Shatter. Icicles which had formed and hardened on her masts and deck rails fell and splintered on the hard deck.
Creak. The dark ebony wheel which steered the terrible vessel turned to the bony grasp of its captain.
The terrible red eye glared through the night, burning with hatred at all it surveyed and stared hard, unblinking as if it could set all that it fell upon on fire.
Unwavering, the eye squinted malevolently through the worsening blizzard and its owner barked an order:
“Rat Boy! Bring the prisoner up!”
Both the fox and the girl continued their path across Deck Thirteen.
As Sally drained the last drop of the most refreshing mug of tea that she had ever drunk, a red flash popped down from the ceiling above, grabbed the tankard and was gone.
“Oh…uh…thank you…uh….Mister Blossompouch.” Sally had never been in a situation where it seemed so hard to think of what to say.
Sally turned back to Jack and saw that the sadness in the fox’s eyes been replaced by a spark of humorous intelligence once more and she asked: “So if you are prisoners, then why aren’t you locked up?”
“The peglegs do allow some of us smaller animals a certain freedom during daylight hours,” Jack Douglas replied. “The larger animals are considered more dangerous and are required to stay in their cells at all times. They use the rest of us to take in the food (If you can call such slop, food!) and drink twice a day. We also have to do the mucking out.” His upper lip curled in distaste. “Luckily for us, the fools who run this ship have confused seniority with size. They think that it is the larger animals who are in charge. And they don’t seem to have realised that they have provided the ranking officers with the perfect opportunity to meet and…” he smiled to himself, “…plan.
“Anyway, at sundown, we are required to report back to our cells and are locked in for the night. However, as you can see, we have some very capable lads and lasses here, madam. Let’s just say that a locked cell door does not provide much of a barrier to the likes of MacGregor and Carlysle.
“The larger animals, I’m afraid, are not so lucky. They’re too big too get out through the tunnels and their doors have had extra locks placed on them just to make sure that none of them escape. The peglegs wouldn’t want an angry buffalo on their hands now, would they?”
Jack Douglas grinned, relishing this last thought and then came to a stop. They had finally reached the other end of the deck. A few small animals scampered about their business in the shadows by the back wall but Jack Douglass ignored them and nodded towards a cell door in front of them.
A solid black façade with no barred window at the top, it was locked and bolted with many more padlocks than the other doors on the deck.
“The big mystery of Deck Thirteen, madam. The Locked Cell.”
Sally walked over to the door and read the number painted near the top: “Cell 57.” “Who’s in there?” She asked.
“A question that has been puzzling us for days now, Miss Hargreaves. We just don’t know.” Jack explained:
“The cell was empty and the door unlocked until two days ago. Then in the middle of the night before last, the ship docked at one of the trading posts along the frozen river. The crew were sent ashore for a little R and R, and someone or something was brought aboard. Even our sources above decks were not able to garner any reasonable intel.
“It is the only cell that we are not required to bring food to or to muck out. In fact, it is kept locked all day. Only, Ratboy, the First Mate (and a nasty piece of work to boot) is allowed to enter the cell once a day. During the curfew at night when the whole deck is locked down, he brings food. Whoever or whatever is behind that door, is a mystery indeed!”
“Couldn’t the beavers tunnel underneath?”
“Yes, excellent. Good thinking there, Miss Hargreaves. However, even with such talented engineers as Carlysle and MacGregor, tunnels take time. Current estimates are that we are still at least a day and a half away from completion. Until then, we’ll - ”
Suddenly, a voice, shouted from the far end of the deck, cutting him off in mid-sentence: “Peglegs deck nine!” The cry was passed from animal to animal and cell to cell right down to the end of Deck Thirteen where Sally and Jack Douglas stood.
The fox’s ears pricked up alertly and instantly he was all action. “The lookouts must have spotted members of the crew on their way down!”
He shouted past Sally, his voice carrying down the length of the deck. “Right! To your stations, lads and lasses! And as for you, madam,” he looked up at Sally.” We are going to have to put you back the way that we found you, I’m afraid. We need to get you down to the other end of the deck post haste!”
Before Sally had a chance to ask him what he meant, the fox was off at a speed that she would not have thought him capable of. His forelegs bounded across the wooden floor so quickly that every time the wheels behind hit an uneven plank, his back end would lift high up into the air before bouncing back down again with a thud.
“Come on then, Sally! No time to lose!” He shouted over his shoulder and Sally found herself running as fast as she could to catch up.
As she ran, she heard orders shouted out around her in harsh whispers. Doors were clanking shut, heavy objects dragged to different positions and the lanterns that lit the deck were being extinguished one by one.
The cry came again: “Peglegs deck ten!”
By the time they had reached the far end of the deck, just one lantern was still alight. The lantern which hung above the spot where she had first regained consciousness.
“Down you go, Madam,” Douglas said. “We’re going to have to tie you up again just as we found you, I’m afraid. Can’t let the peglegs know that we’ve been breaking curfew now, can we? Caruthers and Temple here will help you.”
Sally glanced down at two thin hares standing next to the wooden post. The smiled up at her, their large, almond-shaped, honey-coloured eyes apologetic. They held ropes similar to the ones which had been used to tie her up earlier. The idea of being bound again and left to the mercy of the pirates who were heading down to the prison deck was almost too much for Sally to bear.
“No, no,” she spat the words out like bullets. Anger had started to build in her chest as soon as she had begun to realise what it was that they wanted her to do. “I don’t want to. What’s going to happen? No, I…”
The Field Marshall spoke gently but, underneath, his voice carried a tone of command: “Sally, listen to me. There is no choice. If they find out that we have been roaming around the deck at night after curfew then it means big trouble for all of us. I don’t believe that they wish to harm you. If they had wanted to do that, then they would have already done so by now. Please, we need your help. If you don’t-” The end of his sentence was left hanging unspoken in the air.
“Peglegs deck eleven!”
Sally saw the plea in the fox’s eyes. Trust me, they said to her. I’ll make sure that no harm comes to you. Trust me. And she did. She didn’t know why but she did. With difficulty, she swallowed the anger that was building and got slowly down to her knees.
“Alright.” She agreed reluctantly.
In a flash the two silky-furred hares tied her wrists and legs together again (although nowhere near as tightly as the first bonds had been). As they moved her back into position, Jack Douglas whispered in her ear.
“As far as they are concerned, you have been unconscious since they put you down here. You will have to keep everything that you have seen and heard down here to yourself. Mum’s the word, huh?”
She looked up at him and nodded, “I promise.”
“We won’t forget this, Sally. The stinkbag will have to go on again, I’m so sorry. Just one more thing: whatever happens, I want you to remember that the platoon has eyes and ears everywhere. We’ll watch out for you. Remember that.”
And with those words, the foul sack was pulled down over her head. And although it was only as far as her nose this time, still a wave of nausea cramped through her stomach.
“Good luck, Miss Hargreaves.” Then he was gone.
She lay there in the dark trying to breathe through her mouth. Her whole body tensed nervously as, with a metal clang and an almighty crash, the door at the top of the steps behind her was thrown open.
Loud footsteps stomped down and did not stop until they were almost on top of her. Rough hands grabbed her legs and the top of her arms and hoisted her up. Then she was half-carried, half-dragged up the steps and out of the door.
After it was slammed shut and locked, the sack was ripped from her face and she felt a hot breath and drops of saliva sprinkle onto her cheek as a new voice whispered:
“I would like to welcome you to the Huntress on behalf of senior management. As is customary, you will be required to complete a few Health and Safety forms before a short tour of the facilities. We hope you have a happy stay and that the experience will be one to remember for the rest of your life. However short that may be.”