Chapter 3: The Maelstrom, with an Account of what Followed

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Pillock Heads was one of the most dangerous places in the known world, a stretch of seething water between two headlands that came together like pincers. It was a conduit between the ocean and Pillock Bay, at the far end of which lay the city of Bareheep. If you wanted to reach Bareheep by boat you had no option but to brave the Heads.

As the ship neared the Heads that afternoon the sea turned coppery, the breeze dropped, and the sky took on the appearance of an old knotted dishcloth. There was a tense atmosphere on the deck. The crew was lashing down everything in sight.  

The Captain and the first mate were deep in discussion at the wheelhouse. The first mate was an old man, more experienced than even the Captain himself, and his counsel was to remain out in the ocean and ride out the storm. The Captain wanted to make a dash through the strait ahead of the storm. The first mate quickly gave in: there was no time for arguments, and even as they finished speaking the wind rose and changed direction.

Ward had seen heavy seas before, but it was one thing to watch them from the safety of the lighthouse and quite another to be on the open water. White crests rose like mountains before the bow, throwing the ship into shadow, and it pitched sickeningly as it dove into the troughs. A premature twilight fell as black thunderheads blotted out the evening stars.

Ward was ordered below deck. He sat with Snapper in the gloom and watched the wind drive spray into the porthole window and listened to the timbers bark and the thunder boom and the gale scream through the rigging. After a while Snapper left the cabin.

For navigation the Captain had the two lighthouses – one at each point, charts, and his memory. The ship would have to zigzag past shallow reefs on each side. They had only nosed into the strait when the current caught hold of the ship, bearing it on as fast as any wind could. Waves seemed to rise up from all directions, driven into roiling peaks. The crew worked like demons to keep the sails from being torn apart.

Suddenly there was a cry from the stern. "Man overboard!" But when the men rushed to the rail they saw only a dark shape sinking beneath the waves. Two men were wrestling with Snapper. He was gibbering and his face was white. Only when a third sailor joined them did they manage to get him below deck.

Just then the wind gave a tremendous gust and a giant wave broke over the deck. There was a groaning sound from beneath the ship. Ropes snapped with high pinging sounds. There was a crack as of a great tree falling in a forest and the main mast flew away into the storm, dragging with it the sails and rigging. The ship spun on the top of another giant wave, seemingly forever; then it lurched sideways off it and shot away, righting itself so suddenly that men slid across the deck and crashed into the rails.

Somehow, miraculously, they had come through the strait and entered the calmer waters of the bay. The wind was still roaring, but with no sails the ship was barely affected. It drifted with the current, which drew them into the shelter of the eastern peninsula. Half an hour later the wind had dropped to almost nothing. The ship was becalmed.

Lanthorns were lit and the crew began to take stock of the damage. Everything that had been lashed to the deck, including half a dozen barrels and a chicken coop, had gone overboard. Two people were missing. The first was a sailor who had been caught in the rigging when the mast flew away; the second, despite a thorough search of the ship, was Ward.

Corvus emerged from his cabin, Ludwig on his shoulder, his face grim. He spoke with the first mate. "Did you see him go over?"

"No. But he did." The sailor motioned to Snapper, who was sitting on a bulwark with his great head between his hands.

"Well it can't be helped," Corvus said. He glanced at Snapper as he went back below, but Snapper didn't look up.

The Captain stood at the rail, smoking his baccus and looking out into the darkness.

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There once was a man from Leningrad,

Who made an account on Wattpad,

He found only books,

About Harry Styles' looks,

And it turned him off literature forever.

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