The mood on the ship turned after they sailed from Warmon. The master had failed to sell the load of blacknut oil they’d carried from the far south. Pressed from fruits of the great forests of southern Acelia, blacknut oil lit the lamps and greased the skillets of the wealthy homes of Northsward and the Isles. But the Ox had arrived late this year, and the north was flush with oil. The merchant in Warmon had broken his contract and bought from another ship. No one else was buying. Now fifty casks gathered dust in the hold while the master offered his cargo in every port of consequence and returned without a sale, each time in fouler humor. The traders, fearing his wrath, worked in tense silence. If the master couldn’t sell the blacknut oil, no one would get paid, and it would be a hard, cold winter.
They had planned to follow the coast all the way north, taking their time, day trading in villages, and then head east to Alfland by a safe and well traveled route, avoiding the dense net of tiny islands where rocky shoals wrecked ships and scavengers waited to pillage them. But the prospect of returning home with unsold cargo and no pay made the master willing to risk his ship. He knew merchants on a few of the smaller islands where traders seldom sailed, and he thought he might sell the oil by the cask. He charted a course northeastward, and the Ox sailed into the heart of the Dragon Isles.
For two weeks they fought the swirling autumn winds, picking their way through waters little known and poorly mapped, landing only twice and making no sales. Great rocky islands climbed from the waters, some broad and blazing with the turning leaves of trees, some low and sprawling green and gold with the year’s fading meadows, others gray and barren. Few were inhabited, and fewer offered safe harbor for a ship the size of the Ox. Ivy began to understand why sailors called this archipelago the dragon.
On a blustery afternoon two days from the next safe port the crew fought a cold north wind that augured an early winter. The Ox was not built for ease of steering, and its great square sail could capture only what wind blew from behind the ship. Laboriously the crew tacked back and forth, sailing northeast and then northwest to catch what wind it could. Beneath the surface the keel groaned as it strained to keep the ship on course.
Ivy was resting against the deck’s railing, watching the clouds for signs of changing weather, when Sharkey nudged her and pointed.
“What is it?”
“On the horizon.”
She peered into the south, where between the dark sea and the steely sky a small black mark had appeared.
“Aye,” he said, and his tone held a warning.
Ivy watched the speck flicker in the swelling sea and, very slowly, grow.
“It’s coming closer.”
“Aye,” said Sharkey again.
“Who else would be out here? We’re two days from any civilized island.”
“Any civilized island, aye.”
“Is it… is it pirates?”
“Aye. And nae jes’ any pilfering amateurs. That’s the devil ship.”
“How do you know?”
“See how fast it moves.”
Ivy looked again. The dark shape had grown visibly while they were talking. “It’s gaining on us,” she admitted. “But—”
“Into the wind,” Sharkey said. “Straight into the teeth of the north wind. No other ship on the sea can blaze a path like that against the wind.”
“So it’s real,” Ivy whispered.
From the stern they heard the master and Mantry having a low but heated argument. Ivy watched the ship grow steadily closer. She could make out three dark sails against the sky, rigged to form a great triangle. She knew she should fear its approach, but its movement fascinated her. It didn’t sail perfectly straight but moved against the horizon, ever so slightly back and forth—beating into the wind just as the Ox did, but far faster with tighter turns. She was about to point this out to Sharkey when she heard Mantry screaming orders.
This was Sharkey, stammering in disbelief.
“You heard me! Turn her around!”
“But we’ll head right for them!”
“We can’t outrun them against this wind. They’ll catch us in nigh an hour!”
Mantry’s face was red with rage. Ivy knew him well enough to recognize that he had been on the losing end of the argument with the master, and that he thought the order foolish, even crazy. But she also knew that he would never admit it.
When the sail filled with wind and sped them back the way they had come, the dark silhouette grew faster. Its sails were as black as Panther. The pirates didn’t bother with disguise but counted on speed and skill to overtake their prey. Their arrogance made them more frightening.
For a time it appeared that with the wind at her back the Ox might slip past the pirates. But the devil ship turned and forced the Ox to change its course, then turned again. No matter how the traders steered their ship, the pirates maneuvered around them and turned them back. Yet the black-sailed ship never closed in for the kill.
“Like a cat,” Sharkey muttered, “toying with a mouse.”
“No,” Mantry said, pointing to a line on the horizon. “They’re driving us to that island. Tack by tack and wave by wave. We’re headed where they wanted us all along.”
For two excruciating hours the devil ship drove the Ox in ever smaller circles while the master gripped the wheel and the crew raced from post to post. The island had no name on Ivy’s maps. None of the men had ever seen it. Small and rocky with low green hills and stunted trees, it appeared not only uninhabited but uninhabitable. The pirates meant to run the Ox aground on the island’s bouldered shore, and any hope of escape was fast dwindling.
Mantry and the master were arguing again, and the master’s voice came bellowing from the bridge. “If we anchor we’ll lose the ship for sure!”
“And if we fight on the water we’ll lose the ship and our lovin’ lives!” Mantry screamed in return.
The crew left their posts and gathered around. It hardly mattered now where the wind took them.
“We’re dead men either way,” Sharkey muttered.
“It seems to me,” said Bennis, in a tone that made every one hush, “that if we’re going to fight, we’d best take the fight to them and not run away on foot like dogs.”
Mantry, red-faced and furious, tried to speak, but Bennis cut him off. “We’re sailors,” he said firmly, “and as sailors we live or die.”
The traders cheered.
Mantry knew he was beaten, and before the master could speak he was already barking commands. “When the ship is righted, arm yourselves! Anything you can find! A shovel, an axe, a pole, a board! Make it long to give yourself reach! We’ll knock them into the sea one by one as they board! —Not you, Kennell!”
He grabbed Ivy by the shoulders as she was running by, pulled her face close to his and dropped his voice so that only she could hear him.
“Not you, girl. Hide yourself.”
“But I want to—”
“No! You can’t fight these men and I won’t let them take you. Get yourself in the hold, astern by the starboard porthole. There’s no cargo there and they won’t be searching for crew, not right away. If they take us you can climb out and take your chances. If you’re a stronger swimmer than I you might make it ashore.”
Ivy hesitated. She felt furious, terrified, frustrated. She wanted desperately to help her friends, she had no idea how to do so, and she knew in her gut that Mantry was right.
She grabbed her satchel from the aft castle and ran for the hatch, slipping between men who were scrambling to keep the ship on course and at the same time arm themselves with any tool at hand. Some clenched their jaws in grim determination. Others fought down panic. Pinyon looked about to throw up. Bennis was oddly calm, as if he might at last be enjoying himself.
Ivy took one last look at the faces of the traders who for two months had been her shipmates and her friends. Then she dropped into the darkness of the hold.
What happened next Ivy could only guess from glimpses through the porthole, sounds from above, and the aftermath of the pirates’ attack. The black-sailed ship let the traders slip by, then turned and quickly caught up. Once they had maneuvered alongside the Ox, the pirates launched a pair of grappling hooks into its deck and hull to draw it nearer. From below Ivy felt the ship shudder and heard the awful clawing and tearing of wood as the massive iron hooks took hold.
When the two ships were only a few yards apart, the pirates swung across on ropes hung from their ship’s masts and leapt aboard the Ox. The traders were no match for them. Those who fought were killed in a few strokes of the pirates’ swords. The rest surrendered. The pirates cut the Ox’s sail loose, and it tore away in the wind.
Aristok, the pirate captain, boarded last—not swinging on ropes, for he thought too highly of himself to do anything so undignified, but by walking across a plank his men had laid between the ships. He was dressed all in black with a long brass-buttoned coat. Black curls flowed from under a tall black hat, and smoke coiled around his head as if his ears steamed with rage. He looked, as he intended, like a demon. He scowled at the traders, looking each man in the face until he cowered.
He came last to the ship’s master, whom he knew by his good coat. Aristok considered him a moment. Then he laughed silently and gestured with a single finger. At the signal, one of Aristok’s men ran the master through with his sword. Two others threw the body overboard.
They marched the traders to the hold.
Ivy crouched behind an old boat the traders had propped against the wall, peering through a hole in the bottom that now would never be patched. She heard and then saw the men climbing one by one down the ladder, two pirates first to safeguard the hold, then the traders, with more pirates between them. She watched as the pirates backed the traders into the aft part of the hold while they examined the cargo. She counted only seven pirates, plus the captain. The pirates were well armed, but surely the traders could overcome them if they tried? She looked in vain for Bennis. But he would have been first to fight—and to die, as he’d promised, as a sailor.
While the pirates ripped lids from crates and dumped their contents on the floor, kicking through the mess to search for valuables, Aristok lectured the traders. “It saddens me,” he growled, “to be taken so… unseriously.” He paced back and forth as he spoke, stepping delicately over spilled goods. “Eighteen years among these isles, and still the master of a floating crate thinks of running at me. As if I were… an irritable fisherman. A trader with a headache. A—dare I say, even—a mere pirate. Rather than, as I am, the unquestioned lord of the Dragon Isles.”
Ivy could see, as Aristok paced, the source of the demonic smoke: he had tied slow-burning rope to the hair beneath his hat, and it smoldered. A spark now and then gave him away. She might have laughed, had she not been hiding behind a rotted rowboat hoping not to be cut to pieces by pirates’ swords. Aristok was a pompous fool, the kind of man people would have laughed at in Ennatin. But he had a half-dozen swords at his command, and he had the traders’ full attention. They listened, rapt, and some of them even trembled.
“You soft-bellied traders talk of the Panther,” the pirate captain sighed. “Children’s tales. Children’s tales!” He whirled to glare at the traders. “No one stalks the seas but me. No one, do you hear? No one stalks the seas but Aristok!” He leaned forward and leered at them, near enough that they could smell the acrid smoke wreathing around his head.
One man of the Ox’s crew was not impressed. While Aristok paced, Mantry had edged himself behind the other traders, moving whenever the pirate captain turned his head, until he was squeezed against Ivy’s rowboat. His hand reached between the wall and the boat and found a wooden pole as tall as a grown man with a long knife strapped to the end to make a crude sort of spear. He must have hidden it there earlier, anticipating being trapped in the hold—or had he left it for Ivy? Had he stashed weapons all over the ship?
She had no time to wonder. Mantry moved with a speed no one would have thought the old man could muster. With his left hand he shoved aside the man in front of him and with his right he hurled his makeshift spear. The point of the knife hit Aristok square in the chest and drove him backward into a barrel. The pirate captain thrashed and tried to scream, but only a horrible gurgling came from his throat.
The hold burst into chaos. Seeing Aristok down the traders attacked, grabbing anything they could use as a weapon—oars, heavy pottery, jagged shards of broken crates. The pirates fell back, stunned, but soon recovered and fought. The ship rang with swords and screams of rage and pain.
Ivy was as terrified to run as to stay. But when a wounded pirate crashed into the rowboat and its weight shoved her into the wall of the hold, she leapt for the porthole.
She caught the sill of the porthole with her fingers, clawed the wall with her boots for leverage and squeezed her upper body through the window, feeling splinters in her shoulders. She blinked in the daylight, the satchel dangling from her neck, her feet still thrust into the hold. Now what? Behind her a battle raged. The island lay a mile away through frigid water. A ladder hung not far down the hull, leading from the deck to one of the longboats they used to move cargo on and off shore. She might be able to reach it. But what if more pirates guarded the deck?
There was no time to think. Hearing a shout behind her, she thrust herself onto the ledge of the porthole and leapt. She nearly missed, but with one sweaty hand she caught a rung and pulled herself onto the ladder.
She dug her knife from her satchel and clamped it between her teeth. The metal hurt her jaw, and she felt ridiculous. It was what pirates did in children’s stories. But if she was going to fight pirates, she might as well act like one. The thought gave her courage as she climbed. As she neared the top she tensed, ready to vault the rail and surprise any waiting guards.
The deck was empty. Peering over the edge Ivy saw the devil ship a dozen feet off the Ox’s side and two pirates standing lookout, but they were cracking jokes and ignoring their duties. The grappling hook lay half-buried in the deck like a great iron hand clawing through the weathered boards, but only plain rope tethered it to the devil ship. If she could cut through that rope…
She eased her body underneath the rail and crawled on her belly to the hook. The rope was as thick as her wrist and tightly braided, but her knife was sharp, and she sawed it through in only a few strokes. The rope slithered away across the deck like a retreating snake and disappeared over the side.
She had heard two thuds. The other hook must have grabbed the ship’s hull, and she didn’t know where. She couldn’t find it without being seen, but she could buy herself a little time.
She crept along the smooth wood until she could reach the plank that bridged the two ships. The pirates had nailed it into the Ox’s deck, and it was fixed fast.
One of the traders had dropped his axe when he surrendered. She would have to make herself known sometime. She crawled to the axe, slid herself back to the plank with one hand gripping its long handle, then jumped to her feet and began hewing at the plank as close to the rail as she could work. The first blow fell mostly into the deck, but that didn’t matter now.
The shout came at the first crash of the axe. One of the pirates ran to the plank, but it wobbled under his weight and he stopped.
“Come and get me!” Ivy yelled, brandishing the axe.
Still the pirate hesitated. He was only a boy, barely older than Ivy. But this wasn’t the time for sympathy. His crewmates had killed her own, and he was coming to kill her.
“Or are you afraid?” she taunted.
That was enough. He took another step forward—carefully, nervously, but determined, spurred on by the shouts of his mate. Then another, and Ivy slammed the axe down. The plank groaned. Another step, and the pirate was halfway between the two ships. She hefted the axe and swung again, and the plank shuddered. The boy panicked and began to run, but it was too late. Ivy swung the axe once more and the thick plank splintered. She fell out of the way as the sharded end of the board slammed against the rail. For a moment she thought it would hold. But the ragged wood snapped, and the pirate fell screaming into the water.
Ivy held the axe in both hands over her head and howled in triumph. Her hat had blown off while she clung to the side of the ship, and her hair whipped free in the wind. The sound that poured from her throat—a furious, tearing, piercing scream of something close to joy—was one she had never heard before. Later the memory of that sound would frighten her. Now she felt strangely calm. She didn’t think about what she would do next. There was only the present moment. The next would come in its own time.
The next moment came in a way no one could have foreseen. With a crashing roar the ship lurched violently upward, and Ivy was thrown backward onto the deck. Something hard and sharp landed on her leg, and something else on her chest. She sat up, dazed. Fire billowed from the deck where the forecastle had been. The forecastle was gone, completely gone. The hold— the hold! She scrambled to her feet and tried, stupidly, to run to the hatch to help her friends, but another explosion flattened her. Flames engulfed the front half of the ship. She couldn’t possibly get to the hold. She could only try to save herself. She ran for the stern and leapt as a third explosion rocked the ship.
The frigid water hit her like a punch in the chest. She surfaced sputtering and gasping for air. Boards and chunks of wood floated in the waves. Lighter debris drifted down from above. The scene in the hold came back to her, and she saw what must have happened. The blacknut oil! The traders took such caution to keep those barrels safe; flames weren’t allowed within twenty feet of the cargo. But when Aristok had crashed into the barrels of blacknut oil, a smoldering rope from his hair must have fallen on one of the barrels. Eventually a spark found an oily patch of wood, and when the barrel caught fire, the oil inside exploded. As the fire spread, two more had blown, or maybe many at once.
A broad, flat board from the the Ox’s deck floated nearby. She swam to it, lay her satchel on top—for she still clung to that satchel, with her few precious possessions—and kicked herself further from the burning ship. With an effort, clutching the board with one arm, she pulled off her boots. Without their weight she floated more easily.
The Ox drifted slowly away, sinking stern-first into the water. The explosions must have ripped the other hook free, or else the last pirate on his own ship had cut it loose.
The last pirate. And Ivy was the last trader. No one else had leapt from the Ox, no one else floated in the water. She was the only one left, clinging to a charred scrap of wood in an icy sea.
No—not the only one. On another board floating a dozen yards away, incredibly, sat Panther, the ship’s cat, soaked ragged and mewling pitifully. How she had escaped, Ivy couldn’t imagine, but the cat had earned her name. No one could kill the Panther of legend, either.
Ivy paddled toward the cat, talking quietly, trying to calm her.
“Here, Panther, it’s all right. It’s all right. I’ll save you.”
The cat, who ordinarily would not have allowed herself to be breathed on, let alone handled, let Ivy scoop her up in one hand and lay her in the satchel. Ivy was grateful for the time she had taken to stitch the leather tight and oil it. The books had taken some damage, but the inside was mostly dry, even after her dunk in the ocean. Panther shivered violently, still mewling.
“You’re all right now,” she told the cat, though they both knew she wasn’t. Neither of them would last long in this water. Already Ivy’s legs began to feel numb.
There was still the devil ship. Pirate or no, she had to get on board that ship, or drown.
She kicked her way around the devil ship’s stern, staying as near the hull as she could to avoid being seen, looking for a ladder, a rope, a handhold, anything at all she could grab onto, but she saw nothing she could reach. She kicked along the port side and around the bow, feeling more and more desperate. Then, coming around to the side that had been next to the Ox, she saw the rope she had cut from the grappling hook hanging just above the water.
She grabbed hold and with what felt like the last of her strength dragged herself out of the water and began to climb up the hull of the devil ship, gripping the rope with numb hands and praying her feet wouldn’t slip. After what seemed an age but could only have been half a minute she pulled herself onto the deck and collapsed, panting and shivering with cold.
The last pirate stood at the ship’s bow, watching the burning husk of the Ox drift away. There were two of them, alone on the open sea. They would have to be allies. Surely neither of them could survive alone.
She got to her feet. The cat scampered free of the satchel and groomed herself, eyeing Ivy disdainfully.
“Hello?” Ivy called.
The pirate wheeled, and Ivy knew at once that she had made a mistake. His face was black with rage. He marched across the deck towards her, hand on the hilt of his sword, sputtering, swearing. “I’ll take no trader alive!” he roared—and then he stopped and burst into laughter.
Ivy saw herself as she stood on the deck of the devil ship, small, bedraggled, her hair clinging to her face, looking as much like a drowned cat as Panther herself. She could never defend herself against a pirate half a head taller than she and far stronger—and armed with a sword.
What would Mantry do? Or Sharkey, or even Bennis?
They were all dead, and couldn’t help her now.
What would her father do, the man whose name and trade she had taken? She had never known him, and he, too, was long gone.
There was only Ivy, and a cat who offered no thanks for saving her life. A cat who had survived, so she thought, by her own wits. A cat who was determined to survive—who would survive. Ivy could see it in her eyes.
What would Panther do?
“I’m no girl,” Ivy said. She spat out the words. She felt a strange calm settle over her, the fear melting, a confidence growing that was not even bravery, because she was no longer aware of anything she ought to fear.
The pirate laughed again, harshly. “What are you, then?” he sneered.
“I’m the Panther.”
The pirate’s laugh died on his lips. He peered at her through narrowed eyes. This was unexpected.
“I’m the Panther of the seas, and no man can kill me.” Ivy’s voice rose as she spoke, and she felt the strength flowing back into her limbs. “I’m the Panther of the seas, and no man can do me harm! I’m the great black Panther of the seas, and I stalk piddling pirates as prey between meals! And I… will… not… die!”
Her cry faded away on the wind. The pirate stared at her, confused. Slowly a grin spread over his face.
“Panther, eh?” he said. “Well, come here, kitty.”
The pirate drew his sword.
Ivy took a step back, wishing that she had planned more than one step ahead. She wheeled, looking for anything she could use as a weapon. And there, miraculously, in a rack of tools on the starboard rail, hung a shovel. A long-handled shovel, its freshly sharpened blade gleaming, exactly where she needed it to be. She was the Panther, and now she had claws.
This time she saw in her mind all that she needed to do. She ran for the shovel, tore it from the rack and pointed it at the pirate, bracing her feet against the deck as he charged. With the first swing of the shovel she sent the sword skittering across the deck. The pirate screamed in pain, blood pouring from an arm that hung limp at his side.
She might have stopped then. She would wonder later whether she should have. But she stepped quickly to the left and hit him again on the same arm, knocking him hard into the rail and off his feet. Before he could find his footing she reared back and smashed the flat of the shovel blade upward into his chest. He teetered, one foot seeking the deck, the other kicking at the air, his left arm miserably cradling his right, before he slipped backward and fell into the sea.
Far below and small, the last man of the devil ship’s crew bobbed helpless in the water. The sea had him up to his neck and washed its unmerciful spray over his face. The man was drowning.
“Help!” he called, gagging on salt water. “Help me!”
But she couldn’t help him now even had she dared to try. She could only watch as he struggled with pitifully ebbing strength and slipped at last beneath the floating wreckage.
His face in the moment before he disappeared would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life.