Sargasso skies, p.1
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Sargasso Skies


  Epigraph

  Contents

  Epigraph

  Prologue

  1 - Trapped!

  2 - Chains

  3 - Count Leopold

  4 - The Hernswick Flotilla

  5 - Escape Plans

  6 - Esmeralda Takes Charge

  7 - Leaping Lizards!

  8 - Fire!

  9 - Hammerland

  10 - Farewell

  About the Author and Illustrator

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  The legends say that once, long, long ago, there was a single round world, like a ball floating in space, and that it was ruled over by six wise badgers. The legends also tell of a tremendous explosion, an explosion so huge that it shattered the round world into a thousand fragments, a vast archipelago of islands adrift in the sky. As time passed, the survivors of the explosion thrived and prospered and gave their scattered island homes a name—and that name was the Sundered Lands.

  That’s what the legends say.

  But who believes in legends nowadays?

  Well . . . Esmeralda Lightfoot, the Princess in Darkness, does, for one. According to Esmeralda, the truth of the ancient legends was revealed to her in a reading of the magical and ancient Badger Blocks—a set of prophetic wooden tokens from the old times. And her companions are beginning to believe it as well: reluctant hero Trundle Boldoak and light-hearted minstrel Jack Nimble are on the quest with her, and they’ve already found four of the crowns.

  But there is a problem. Someone else is also hunting for the six crowns—his name is Captain Grizzletusk, and he’s the meanest, bloodthirstiest, wickedest pirate ever to sail the skies of the Sundered Lands. And just to make matters even worse, Grizzletusk and his murderous pirate band are being helped by none other than Millie Rose Thorne, Queen of All the Roamanys, and—horrifyingly enough—Esmeralda’s very own aunty!

  They have outdistanced their enemies for the time being and are heading for the mysterious island of Hammerland, where it has been prophesied that among the strange and sinister steam moles, they will find the fifth crown—the Crown of Wood.

  But first they must navigate the dangers of the fearsome Sargasso Skies . . .

  “Oh, great, Trundle!” groaned Esmeralda. “Nice going. Now we’re stuck!”

  Trundle was on the narrow seat in the stern of the skyboat, red-faced and puffing with exertion as he tried to reverse the treadles that worked the propeller. “How is this my fault?” he gasped. “We were blown in here by a cyclone!” The wooden treadles were locked solid. He peered over the back of the Thief in the Night. Their little skyboat hung at an alarming angle, caught up high in the rigging of a wrecked windship. A length of thick, tarred rope had wound itself tight around the propeller blades.

  “It isn’t your fault,” said Esmeralda. “But I have to blame someone, and you’re nearest.”

  “Many’s the windship has foundered in this dreadful gyre,” Jack said, struggling to untangle himself from more rigging that had snagged over the prow. “I told you we might have problems getting safely past the Sargasso Skies.” He pulled himself loose at last. “It’s the graveyard of countless brave sky-faring vessels,” he said mournfully. “Why, I could sing you sad ballads of lost and missing windships that would make you weep!”

  “Later, maybe,” said Esmeralda, sliding down the steeply sloping deck. “What we need right now is a sharp blade to cut ourselves free.”

  “Even if we do, we’ll still be trapped in this awful place,” Trundle said, staring unhappily out over the mist-shrouded wasteland of the dreaded Sargasso Skies. The desolation stretched away in all directions under dark and brooding clouds. This was without doubt the gloomiest and most dismal place he had ever seen. The rotting hulks of doomed windships rose like dark phantoms out of the crawling and swirling mists, their forecastles like ruinous towers, their masts poking up like broken fingers, their rigging hanging like wind-blown spiders’ webs. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the air was thick with the stink of rot and mold and decay.

  The sails of their gallant little skyboat hung limply from the mast, and their neat pile of provisions was now a higgledy-piggledy mess strewn down the length of the hull. The ferocious swirling winds that had dragged them off course had spat them out just as suddenly as they had sucked them in.

  And things had been going so well till then.

  They had sped away from the island of Spyre with two of the crowns of the Badger Lords safely stowed aboard and with clear instructions about the next stage of their quest:

  You must travel to the distant and sinister island of Hammerland and seek for the Crown of Wood among the steam moles!

  The steam moles! Little was known about that peculiar and secretive race. The mysterious island of Hammerland was far away from all the main habitations and trade routes of Sundered Lands, out beyond a terrible place called the Sargasso Skies. And that was a notorious death trap they had every intention of avoiding.

  “Steer well clear!” Esmeralda had told Trundle as the vast mist-shrouded reef of derelict windships and drifting debris had loomed up in the distance.

  “Will do!” Trundle had responded, shifting the tiller accordingly.

  Little did they know! The Sargasso Skies were at the center of a ceaseless swirl of turbulent winds. Before any of them had time to prevent it, the whirling winds had taken the Thief in the Night by the sails and had dragged her into the heart of all the miserable wreckage. Out of control and spinning wildly, the hapless skyboat had come at last to a sudden jarring halt, trapped like a fly in a tangled web of rigging.

  “We’re never going to get out of here, are we?” said Trundle, shivering in the foul and chilly air. Although it had been clear daylight when the sky squalls had caught them, down here in the doldrums it seemed like perpetual night, the sky shrouded in a restless roof of dark clouds.

  “Look on the bright side,” said Jack, clambering laboriously up the deck. “At least Esmeralda’s aunt Millie and those cutthroat pirates won’t chase us in here!”

  “I wish they’d try it,” growled Esmeralda. “I’d love to see the Iron Pig smashed to little bits and all Captain Grizzletusk’s bloodthirsty crew marooned here until they turn up their toes and die!”

  “Just like we’re going to do, you mean?” said Trundle.

  “Now then, none of that!” Esmeralda said briskly. “Positive attitudes are what we need to get out of this mess. And the first order of the day is to cut ourselves free from all this old rope. Out with your sword, Trundle—get hacking!”

  Trundle drew his sword and leaned out over the back of the skyboat.

  Hack! Slash! Whack! Chop!

  Trundle grinned as he worked away at the ropes looped around the propeller. It was good to see them splitting and falling away under his keen blade. This was more like it! This was proper hero stuff!

  “Oops!” he said.

  “What oops?” asked Jack.

  “Why oops?” asked Esmeralda.

  Trundle turned toward them, smiling nervously. “I think I got a bit carried away,” he said.

  Esmeralda put her paw to her forehead. “What have you done?” she said, groaning.

  “I sort of . . . accidentally . . . chopped off one of the propeller blades,” Trundle admitted. “Silly me! Still, the propeller will work just as well with only three blades, won’t it?”

  “Of course it won’t!” Esmeralda burst out. “It’ll be off-balance. The moment you get going with the treadles, you’ll twist the drive shaft like a corkscrew, you dim-witted animal!”

  “Oh.” Trundle felt terribly deflated. “Are you sure?” He looked hopefully at Jack, but the squirrel just nodded agreement with Esmeralda.

&n
bsp; There followed a few moments of rather awkward silence.

  “I don’t suppose there’s a spare propeller aboard?” Jack asked.

  “You don’t suppose right!” growled Esmeralda.

  “Or something we could make a propeller blade with?” added Jack.

  “We could try using Trundle’s snout!”

  “Wait a minute,” Trundle said, rather alarmed by the way Esmeralda was eyeing his nose. “Isn’t this whole place made up of smashed and wrecked windships and skyboats?”

  “It is. What of it?” snapped Esmeralda.

  “Surely there must be a working propeller out there somewhere?” explained Trundle. “Or at worst, some bits and pieces we could use to repair our own one?”

  Jack’s grin opened up like a piano keyboard, and he clapped his paws together. “Well done, Trundle!” he chirruped. “Of course there will be!”

  “And tools, I’m guessing, to do the fixing with,” Esmeralda chimed in. “And who knows what other useful stuff, as well. Nice thinking, Trundle!”

  Trundle beamed at his two friends. From zero to hero in one leap!

  “Well, don’t just sit there grinning like a moonstruck oyster!” Esmeralda declared. “Let’s get busy!”

  “What about the crowns?” Jack asked, nodding towards the two boxes wedged under the stern seat—boxes that contained the mythical Crowns of Ice and Fire. “Should we take them with us?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Esmeralda. “They’ll be safe enough here. It’s not like we’re going far. With any luck, we’ll find everything we need close by.”

  “That’s as may be,” said Jack, picking up his rebec and bow and slinging them over his back. “But I’m not going anywhere without my musical instrument.”

  The three companions made their way down to the front of the tilting skyboat. The broken mast of the windship that had snagged them rose up into the darkness. The remains of a powerstone basket could be seen where the mast had splintered.

  “I suppose the powerstone must have floated away,” said Esmeralda as she reached a leg out over the prow of the Thief in the Night. “I wonder what became of the sky mariners?”

  “Best not to think about it,” said Jack.

  Esmeralda found a firm footing in the rigging and clambered slowly down into the white mist. Jack went next, and Trundle brought up the rear, his sword in his belt—just in case!

  Trundle shuddered as fingers of mist crept in through his clothing and nasty putrid smells assaulted his sensitive snout.

  “Ugh!” It was Esmeralda’s voice.

  “What?” Trundle called down.

  “Oh, my!” Jack exclaimed.

  “What?”

  “I think we’ve found out what happened to the crew,” said Esmeralda.

  A moment later, Trundle reached the deck and saw what had upset his friends. Skeletons were strewn around the smashed and crumbling deck of the windship.

  “Oh! How dreadful!” Trundle sighed, his gaze drawn to the skulls, with their empty eye sockets staring out from among the sad little piles of bones.

  Jack picked his way across the groaning deck and stooped to stare more closely at one of the skeletons. “I don’t want to alarm anyone,” he said. “But some of these bones have tooth marks on them.”

  Trundle shivered. “You mean they ate one another?” he stammered, more horrified than ever now.

  “I don’t think so,” said Jack. “By the looks of the skeletons, I’d say this crew was mostly goats—but the gnawings aren’t from goat teeth.” He frowned. “They’re long and pointy, like knives.”

  Trundle stared at the mysterious and threatening mists that crowded around the battered windship. “Do you think there could be cannibal animals living here?” he asked.

  “The crews of wrecked windships turned wild and wicked by starvation and hopelessness, you mean?” Jack intoned bleakly.

  “Something like that,” said Trundle.

  “It’s possible,” Jack admitted.

  “Then maybe we shouldn’t spend too long standing around chatting,” said Esmeralda. “Come on, Jack, let’s look for some useful bits of wood and for tools. The sooner we’re out of here, the better. Trun? You keep watch! If you see anything suspicious, give a yell!”

  “You bet I will!”

  Trundle edged nervously across the precarious decking, aware of every creak and crack in the sagging timbers. He came to the gunnels and leaned over, staring down into the murky depths.

  He almost jumped out of his boots with shock.

  Several pairs of luminous green eyes were staring back up at him. And at that same second, the air filled with high-pitched whoopings and hollerings.

  Trundle leaped back with a yelp. “Fiendish things!” he shrieked. “There are fiendish things climbing up the side of the windship!”

  “What kind of things?” called Esmeralda.

  “Those kind of things!” yelled Trundle, pointing to where the head of a large green lizard had appeared over the gunnels. The lizard’s mouth opened. Its teeth flashed white and sharp, and its long black tongue flickered out. The eyes gleamed, hungry and ferocious. The creature gave a high call that was like nails scraping down a blackboard.

  Another lizard head appeared. Then another. And another and another and another. And along with wide mouths filled with knife-sharp teeth, Trundle noticed, the lizards clutched terrible weapons—great clubs and cudgels with iron spikes hammered through them.

  “Run for it!” yelled Esmeralda.

  Trundle zoomed across the deck as though he had been shot from a cannon. Yelling and screaming, the lizards swarmed after him.

  “Jump!” shouted Jack.

  Without any time for thought, the three friends threw themselves over the side of the windship. It wasn’t a long fall, and they landed unhurt in a soft, boggy mire of rotten wood and oozy slime. Keeping close together, they waded through the stinking mess until they came to firmer ground.

  “Now what?” gasped Trundle. The shrieking and calling of the lizards seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.

  “That way!” said Jack, pointing to a thick bank of fog some way off. “They won’t be able to see us in that!”

  Nor we them, thought Trundle.

  All the same, Trundle and Esmeralda chased the fleeing squirrel across the cheerless landscape of rotting hulks and quagmires. They raced over precarious planks that spanned great black holes—holes, Trundle guessed, that would send you plummeting down and down forever. They scrambled over uneven decking that crumbled at the touch of paw or boot. They leaped fallen masts and floundered through pools of stagnant oily water.

  There was vegetation, Trundle noticed—plants that must have arrived here aboard stricken windships, plants strong enough and hungry enough to survive in all this desolation. Creepers and blobby mushroomlike things, and greeny-gray funguses and lichens, and odd-looking, evil-looking growths with ugly flowers and whip-thin tendrils that snatched at your legs as you ran past.

  As they headed into the fog, they could hear the lizards pursuing them, their long, clawed feet slapping and flapping as they swarmed smoothly over the debris, their eyes green as poison, their high calls echoing back and forth.

  But then a different sound came to Trundle’s ears. Not yelling and yowling. It was music! Distant organ music, echoing eerily through the mist.

  “Do they seem like the type to play keyboard instruments?” gasped Esmeralda.

  “No,” exclaimed Trundle. “They seem like the type to bash you over the head and eat you!”

  “Maybe there are survivors of the shipwrecks!” said Jack. “Maybe there’s a camp or a town or something. Maybe that’s where the music is coming from!”

  This seemed to Trundle to be a whole lot of maybes, but he swerved as Jack swerved and the three of them ran full tilt toward the music.

  They raced like mad things over the jagged and precarious terrain, but the music seemed to get no closer. Trundle began to wonder if they were imagining it
.

  “I recognize that tune,” Jack said. “Whoever is playing, they’re really good!”

  “That’s a comfort,” gasped Esmeralda. “It’ll be nice to listen to some well-played music.” Her voice rose to a shriek. “While we’re being eaten alive!”

  Suddenly they came bursting out of the fog and found that they had stumbled into a deep valley with high, sheer slopes on three sides.

  “It’s a dead end!” wailed Jack. “Quick! Let’s double back before they close in on us!”

  But it was too late for that. Loping, spindle-legged shapes came looming out of the mists behind them. Green eyes flashed. Spiked cudgels lifted in long sinewy hands. White teeth snapped.

  The three friends backed away from the approaching lizards.

  There was no escape!

  Trundle drew his sword and stepped forward, his knees knocking and his stomach in knots.

  “Keep off!” he shouted, gesticulating with the sword. “Go back if you value your lives!”

  Hissing and spitting, the lizards came to a wavering halt.

  “Way to go, Trundle!” breathed Esmeralda.

  “Oh, well done, my lad!” added Jack.

  Green eyes blinked and shifted as the lizards watched them, their backs bent, their arms hanging, their expressions uncertain.

  “Advance on them, Trun!” urged Esmeralda. “Send ’em packing!”

  Trundle wasn’t so sure about that. He had just about used up all his reserves of courage. Those spiked cudgels looked nasty—not to mention the long, sharp teeth.

  A particularly hefty lizard came barging up from behind the others, whacking a few of them over the head with his club as he did so. He glared at the three friends.

  “Spshhhspshhh?” he roared, pointing at them.

  “Hiiissssssss!” replied the lizards in chorus.

  “Uh-oh!” said Esmeralda. “This doesn’t look good.”

  “Shrrrrraaaasssshhhh!” bellowed the boss lizard.

  “Leg it!” yelled Trundle as the whole mass of lizards came surging forward, teeth bared and clubs raised.

 
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