* Chapter One *
The Armada of the Dead
'What are we going to do?'
Deadbolt Vulpoon turned from the cabin window and glared at the thin quartermaster who had just spoken.
'The storms over Undertown are growing, if anything,' said a cloddertrog in a bleached muglumpskin coat.
The other sky pirates at the long table all nodded.
'And there's nothing moving on the Mire Road,' he added. 'All trade has stopped dead.'
The nodding turned to troubled muttering.
'Gentlemen, gentlemen,' said Deadbolt, resuming his seat at the head of the table. 'We are sky pirates, remember. Our ships might no longer fly, but we are still sky pirates. Proud and free.' His heavy hand slammed down on the table so hard, the tankard of woodale in front of him leaped up in the air. 'And no storm--dark maelstrom or not--is going to defeat us!'
'I repeat my question,' said the thin quartermaster with a supercilious sniff. 'What are we going to do? There are over thirty crews in the armada. That's three hundred mouths to feed, three hundred backs to clothe, three hundred purses to fill. If there is no trade on the Mire Road, then what shall we live on? Oozefish and mire water?' He sniffed again.
'No trading, no raiding,' said the cloddertrog.
Again, the assembled sky pirates nodded in agreement.
Deadbolt Vulpoon grasped the tankard and raised it to his lips. He needed to collect his thoughts.
For weeks, the dark clouds had gathered on the far horizon at the Undertown end of the Great Mire Road. Then, two days ago, the huge anvil formations of cloud had merged into the unmistakable menacing swirl of a dark maelstrom.
Sky help those caught underneath, he'd thought at the time.
Now Undertown was lost from view and the Mire Road was deserted. A great shryke battle-flock had disappeared in the direction of Undertown just before the storm struck, and then the remaining shrykes from the tally-huts had retreated back to the Eastern Roost . . .
Deadbolt took a deep draught from the tankard and slammed it back on the table. 'I have sent out another raiding party,' he announced with a confidence he didn't feel. 'And until we get to the bottom of this, I for one don't intend to panic.'
'Raiding party!' snorted the thin quartermaster, pushing his chair noisily back and climbing to his feet. 'To raid what?' He paused. 'I hear there's opportunities opening up in the Foundry Glades, and that's where my crew are headed. And you're all welcome to join us!'
He strode from the cabin.
'Gentlemen, please,' said Deadbolt, raising a hand and motioning to the others to remain seated. 'Don't be hasty. Think of what we've built up here in the Armada. Don't throw it all away. Wait until the raiding party returns.'
'Until the party returns,' said the cloddertrog as the sky pirates got up to leave. 'And not a moment longer.'
As they trooped out, Deadbolt Vulpoon climbed to his feet and returned to the window. He looked out through the heavy leaded panes at the Armada of the Dead beyond.
What exactly had they built up here? he wondered bitterly.
When stone-sickness had begun to spread through the flight-rocks of the sky ships, he and the other sky pirates had read the writing on the wall. They came together and scuppered their vessels, rather than letting sky-sickness pick them off one by one.
The hulks of the sky ships had formed an encampment in the bleak Mire, and a base from which to raid the lucrative trade along the Great Mire Road. It wasn't sky piracy, but it was the closest thing to it in these plagued times. And sometimes, when the mists rolled in and the wind got up, he would stand on his quarterdeck and imagine he was high up in Open Sky, as free as a snowbird . . .
Vulpoon looked at the grounded vessels, their masts pointing up so yearningly towards the sky, and a lump formed in his throat. The ships still bore their original names, the letters picked out in fading gold paint. Windspinner, Mistmarcher, Fogscythe, Cloudeater . . . His own ship--the Skyraider--was a battered and bleached ghost of her former glory. She would rot away to noth_ing eventually if she didn't raise herself out of the white mire mud.
But that, of course, could never happen, for the flight- rock itself at the centre of the great ship was rotten. Unless a cure for stone-sickness was discovered, then neither the Skyraider, nor the Windspinner, nor the Mistmarcher, nor any of the other sky pirate ships would ever fly again.
Thick, sucking mud anchored the great hulls in place, turning the once spectacular sky vessels into odd-shaped buildings, made all the more peculiar by the additional rooms which had been constructed, ruining the lines of the decks and clinging to the sides of the ships like giant sky-limpets.
What future lay ahead for him? he wondered. What future was there for any of the those who called the Armada of the Dead home?
Deadbolt reached for the telescope that hung from his breast-plate. He put it to his eye and focused on the distant horizon.
He could see nothing through the impenetrable black clouds--either of Under-town or of the Great Mire Road. Even the distant Stone Gardens, normally silhouetted against the sky, were covered with a heavy pall that obscured them completely.
Deadbolt Vulpoon sighed. He lowered the eye-glass and was about to turn away when something caught his eye. He returned the telescope to his eye and focused the lens a second time.
This time his efforts were rewarded with a clear picture of seven, eight . . . nine individuals tramping towards him. It was the raiding party.
Back so soon? he wondered, a nagging feeling of disappointment settling in the pit of his stomach.
Two of the sky pirates were holding up poles, at the top of which was a large brazier-cage. The burning lufwood charcoal it contained blazed with a bright purple light which illuminated the treacherous Mire, ensuring that no one inadvertently stumbled into a patch of sinking-sand, stepped on an erupting blow-hole, or stumbled into a fearsome muglump . . .
As the raiding party came closer, Vulpoon leaned out of his cabin window. 'Any luck?' he bellowed.
Yet even as he cried out he knew the answer. The sacks slung across their shoulders were empty. The raid had yielded nothing.
Excerpted from Edge Chronicles: Freeglader by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.