The ships were little more than dark spots on the horizon, but they filled Derrick with a strange sense of foreboding. He was balanced at the top of the rocky cliff, about to jump off into the brilliant water below, when the black sails caught his eye.
"What? Not scared, are you?" His friend Charlie's voice ricocheted off the rocks below. Looking down the steep, jagged stone of the cliff, he could see Charlie swimming in small circles like a shark, waiting for Derrick to join him.
"'Course not," Derrick shouted back, shifting his feet and raising his arms to dive rather than jump. He spared one more glance for the ships on the horizon—there were three of them now—before launching off of the rock, arching his back and then straightening his body just before plunging into the warm water.
The day was perfect for cliff diving. The sun was shining with barely a cloud in sight, and the water was smooth and clear and blue. Derrick savored the sensation of cutting through the water, kicking his legs for speed, before surfacing next to Charlie. Shaking his head, droplets spattered from Derrick's mop of brown hair into Charlie's face.
"You're like a dog," Charlie laughed. "What took you so long, anyway?"
The rush of diving into the ocean had nearly pushed the ships out of Derrick's head. He bobbed up in the water, turning to point out into the ocean beyond their small island. "I saw some ships. Three of them, and, I can't say for sure, but I don't think they're traders."
Charlie followed his pointing finger; blue eyes squinted in the sun. Derrick watched his face carefully. Charlie's dad ran the docks and had records of all the ships that came and went from Clough, so Charlie knew ships better than Derrick did. "I can't say for sure," he said. "They're too far away. Give me a bit."
Derrick hated waiting around. Rather than float and stare at the ships, he dove underwater again, ignoring the sting of the salt as he opened his eyes. The sunlight filtering through the water made streaks of bright color that led to the sand and rocks on the bottom. After kicking down to touch the soft, silvery sand, he propelled himself forward to yank up a clump of seaweed. With the greenish brown plant twisted in his hand, he rose back up to the surface and glanced around for Charlie, who was still shading his eyes and staring out at the ships. Fighting back a laugh, Derrick swam around behind his friend and dumped his prize on Charlie's head. The green was a brighter shade above water, clashing wonderfully with Charlie's red hair.
"Uggh," Charlie exclaimed, turning to Derrick with a grin. He swiped the seaweed off of his head and flung it at Derrick, watching as it landed with a wet thwump right in the middle of his friend's face. While the plant had felt soft and feathery underwater, it now slipped in slimy fingers down Derrick's nose and chin. Charlie was braying with laughter, and, peeling the seaweed off his face, Derrick joined him. Suddenly, a rush of water launched into Derrick, filling his mouth and nose. Sputtering, he turned on Charlie, cupping his hands for the perfect splashing technique to exact his revenge.
"Derrick!" It was the most annoying voice in the world, Derrick thought, somehow loud and uncertain all at the same time. That was his sister, Iris. She was shouting because Gwenda had no doubt told her to find him, but he could tell from her voice that she didn't expect him to come with her. Derrick looked up to see Iris's tall, thin form standing at the top of the cliff; she was probably glaring down at the two boys. That was another thing that annoyed Derrick about her. She was only eleven-years-old, but she was already nearly as tall as he was. With three extra years to grow, Derrick should have been at least a foot taller than Iris. Really, the only thing that made them look at all like siblings were their eyes—they could both be considered blue, although Derrick's were a darker shade while Iris's tended more toward gray. Her hair was also lighter—the somewhat golden color of wheat—and wiry thick. She always kept it in a stiff braid down her back. Derrick's, on the other hand, was dark chestnut brown and fine as silk. Iris had said that she was jealous, but Derrick didn't tell her that he'd trade his soft, girly hair for her height any day.
"You're supposed to be helping repaint the inn!" Iris called again.
Derrick groaned. "Just ignore her," he said to Charlie. The Daley Inn, which had been in Gwenda's family for years, always needed repainting. The wind and salt spray from the ocean made sure of that. On a warm, sunny day like today, he would much rather swim than reapply the white coat to the old wooden boards.
"Come join us, Iris!" Charlie shouted. "The water's fantastic!"
Derrick glared at his friend. "That is the opposite of ignoring her."
Charlie shrugged. "Better she joins us than drags us back with her."
Iris stubbornly shook her head. She never jumped off of the cliff, anyway. She was always too scared. Ignoring her, Derrick swam out from the cliff a bit and looked back out toward the horizon. The ships were bigger now, coming closer toward Clough.
"Can you tell what they are yet?" he asked Charlie.
"I think they look like schooners," Charlie said, frowning. "That's weird. Too small for much cargo. I wonder what they're trading?"
Derrick had a thought. "What if they're not here to trade?"
"Pirates!" The idea excited him. Pirate stories were exciting and dangerous, and usually far from the small island of Clough.
"Stupid. What would pirates want here?" said Charlie. "Pebbles and sand? Turnips and carrots? The town's got maybe three cows total and a couple of ponies. We've got some good trees in the forest, but pirates aren't lumberjacks."
Derrick made a face at him. He knew that Clough was too small and poor to attract attention from pirates. That's why he was excited and not terrified.
"What are you looking at?" Iris was shouting at them again. She had clambered down the rocky path to the beach beneath the cliff and was now standing on the shore, bending toward them like a sapling tree in the wind.
"Pirate ships!" Derrick yelled back. "Three of 'em, see?"
Iris waded toward the boys in the shallow part of the water, shading her eyes. "I think one of them is damaged."
"You're right," said Charlie. "The back one—its sails are ripped and one of the masts is down. There should be two masts like the other ships have."
Derrick followed Charlie's gaze and saw that he was right. They also saw burn marks on all three ships. "Pirates might dock here if they had to make repairs," Derrick said. Now that there was a reasonable purpose for them to be here, the thought of pirates was much less thrilling.
"Let's go back to the inn," Iris's voice quavered, and this time, the boys didn't ignore her. They swam back to the shallow area, and all three climbed the path up from the beach.
"We should tell Eli first," Derrick said, looking toward the lighthouse. They would reach Eli's lighthouse before entering the main part of town where the inn was located.
Iris ran ahead of the boys as they neared the little house attached to the lighthouse, small pebbles and stones spraying out behind her each time her feet pushed off the road. Derrick and Charlie jogged to catch up as she knocked on the door. There was no answer. Iris peered in the windows and Derrick checked the lighthouse door. It opened easily on well-oiled hinges, so he called up the stairs.
"Eli? Are you up there?"
"I'm here," was the gruff reply. Derrick motioned for Charlie and Iris to follow him as he climbed the steep stairs to the top of the lighthouse. Eli stood leaning toward one of the glass panes, looking out toward the ocean. He had a long, metallic spyglass pressed to his eye, and his thick, dark eyebrows were pushed together across his forehead.
"Do you see them, Eli?" Derrick asked, stepping forward. Iris skipped immediately to Eli's side, but Charlie hung back.
"Yeah, I see 'em," Eli growled. "Pirates, I'd say." He turned slightly away from the window, lowering the spyglass with his right arm. His left arm ended jarringly just below the shoulder, where it had been lost years ago in a battle with pirates when he was still a sailor. No one knew all of the details, although a number of exaggerated stories about how Eli had lost his arm were passed around Clough. No one would dare to ask Eli himself.
"Are you sure they're pirates?" Iris asked in a small voice.
"I know pirates when I see 'em," Eli replied. He tossed Derrick the spyglass and rumpled Iris's hair. With surprising speed and agility, considering his large frame, Eli moved across the small room to the warning bell that was rigged near the light itself. "Gotta be the first time I've had to use this," he muttered, reaching out to pull on the rope. Then he hesitated. "You kids better run along. This bell is awful loud in here, you'll be happier to be outside when it rings. Go tell Gwenda what's happenin' and find a place to stay safe. And out from underfoot." He looked pointedly at Derrick with that last phrase.
They didn't need to be told twice. Charlie was first one down the stairs, with Iris on his heels. Derrick hung back only a moment to take a look at the ships through the spyglass himself. Peering through the lens, the ships seemed right in front of him. He could see the charred pieces of wood on the hulls, and the torn and singed bits of sail. The third ship was obviously the worst off. One of its masts was down, and it was lagging behind the other two. As Derrick watched, he could even see the sailors as they ran across the deck.
"They're readying to dock when they reach here," Eli said darkly. "Don't know if we can do much to stop 'em either."
"Do you recognize their flag?" Derrick asked, moving the magnifier so he could see the sigil clearly. It displayed a sword piercing a bright yellow bird on a purple backdrop. As he slowly scanned the other ships, he also saw a green flag featuring a sea-serpent—a tralik, most likely—wrapped around a ship. This one seemed familiar, but Derrick hardly dared to voice his thought out loud.
"Don't know the yellow and purple one with the bird," Eli grunted. Derrick waited, knowing he had more to say. "The green one, though, that one I know."
"It's him, isn't it?" Derrick asked, his excitement growing again.
"Could be. Or it could be someone pretendin' to be 'im."
"If it really is Azdar, we don't need to be scared, though, right?" Every child on Clough had grown up hearing stories of Azdar. He wasn't a normal pirate, but a privateer, who kept the seas safe on behalf of the Valkan Empire. Clough belonged to Hartland, not Valka, but the two nations had fought together against Elricia at the end of the Valkan-Elrician war. "Azdar wouldn't attack allies of Valka."
"No, Azdar wouldn't. But we don't know that it's him for sure. More like it's a captain of one of his fleets, whoever that purple flag belongs to. Or someone who'd like us to think he's sailing under Azdar to get our defenses down."
Derrick nodded, glancing through the glass out to sea once more. His stomach felt strange and heavy, and his pulse was speeding up as well. "I should go warn the people in town, so they know what your bell's ringing for," he said. In spite of his nervousness, Derrick now had an opportunity to do something worthwhile. If he ever told Gwenda that he was bored, she would just tell him to paint the inn or wash the tables. Swimming and exploring with Charlie was fun, but even that lost its flavor after a while. Here, finally, was a chance for excitement. Plus, if Derrick brought the news of the pirate attack and everyone was able to prepare, he would be seen as a hero, rather than one of the parentless brats left behind at the local inn. Gwenda was good to Derrick and Iris—she was a better mom than some of the other kids' real moms—but although they would never say it out-loud, being abandoned by their real parents left a painful hole that even Gwenda couldn't really fill.
After saying good-bye to Eli, Derrick hurried back toward town, meeting up with Iris on the way.
"Charlie went on to the docks," she said, her eyes darting nervously to the water and back to Derrick. "Are we going back to the inn?"
"Yup," he replied, leading the way. He set the pace at a light jog, and Iris had no trouble keeping up with him. They soon reached the main road, which branched to the right toward the docks, and to the left toward the shops and the Daley Inn. Derrick could see Charlie's back as he made his way home, and he and Iris swung to the left toward their own. The sound of Eli's warning bell soon followed them, sending a shiver up Derrick's spine.
The inn was busy with people stopping in for their lunch, but most of them were finishing their mugs in large swigs and making their way to the door, their voices curious and worried, wondering about the warning bell. Gwenda looked harassed. Her sleeves were rolled up, and her coppery curls were escaping from the ribbon she had used to tie them back. Her face glistened with sweat as she bustled back and forth between the kitchen and dining room, hastily taking payments and clearing tables.
Iris pushed past Derrick into the dim room and immediately began clearing dirty dishes from a recently emptied table. "Where's Chrissy?" she asked. Chrissy, the daughter of a local fisherman, was a few years older than Derrick and helped Gwenda serve tables at lunch and dinner times for some extra coins.
"Couldn't come today," Gwenda called, disappearing into the kitchen. Iris followed with the stack of dirty plates, shoving some of them into Derrick's hands. "Her little brother's sick, so she kept home to nurse him. About time you two were back," she said, giving Derrick her most annoyed glance. Derrick couldn't help feeling a twinge of guilt. Sometimes he forgot how hard Gwenda worked to take care of them, and she never once complained about being left with two kids who weren't even hers. He knew that their real father was a friend of hers—a sailor who often stopped on Clough on his way between the larger islands of Valka and Hartland. But Gwenda rarely wanted to talk about him, and even when she did, it was just small details, like how Derrick's hair was like his, or how he'd always have a new joke to tell each time he visited the Daley Inn.
"Never mind lunch now," Derrick said, dumping the plates by the sink and blocking Gwenda's way back into the dining room. "We were just at Eli's," Derrick wasn't going to mention the cliff diving, though Iris was bound to tell, "and we saw three ships coming in toward the harbor. Pirate ships from the look of it."
She arched an eyebrow. "Really, Derrick? Can't you see I don't have time for games right now? I know the bell's ringing, and it's probably a foundering merchant ship or the like. The men'll sort it out." She pushed past Derrick back to her lunch crowd. He groaned in frustration before following her out.
"There were three of them," Derrick said loudly, "And they looked to have been in a recent battle. One was missing a mast, and the sails were all torn and burned."
Gwenda was placing the steaming bowls by Jack and Rob Bailey, brothers who did most of the carpentry on Clough. They came to the inn most every day to flirt with Gwenda, although she never really took much notice of them. Today, however, they were standing and ready to leave, answering the summons of the warning bell like everyone else.
"What's this, then?" Jack asked, hovering by the table, "Ships coming in?"
"Schooners," Derrick said, "like to be pirate ships." That got the attention of most of the crowd. Gwenda spun to glare at Derrick, but he ignored her. "I saw 'em through Eli's magnifier." He went on to describe the way they looked again, including the flags they bore.
"What would Azdar want with a little island like Clough?" Rob asked, scratching his head.
"Like the kid says, might not be Azdar at all," Tobias's voice rose above the small crowd that had stayed to hear what Derrick had to say. "We outta make our way to the docks and be ready for 'em, just in case." The noise intensified at that, and soon the rest of the men were piling out of the inn and calling back those that had left earlier to gather whatever makeshift weapons they could find and set up a defensive line back at the docks.
"Wonderful," Gwenda sighed, slumping against the bar, "I'm betting not a one of 'em paid before they left."
"Never mind that," Derrick said again, "let's go to the docks, too, and see what's happening!"
"Not you," Gwenda said, her voice regaining strength, "you and Iris stay here. I'll head over to Eli's and watch from there. You two stay safe. No reason it should be pirates, but if by some chance it is and things go bad, you and your sister head to the woods, you hear?"
Derrick nodded, hoping Gwenda was distracted enough to believe that he would follow her directions for once. Of course he wasn't planning to. As soon as Gwenda was hiking up her skirt and hurrying down the road, Derrick turned to Iris.
"Let's go to Charlie's. That'll be the best place to see what's going on."
"Gwenda said to stay here," Iris replied, her voice stubborn. Derrick rolled his eyes. "I know that's what she said, but even she doesn't expect us to follow her directions," he reasoned. It probably was true. Gwenda had raised them since Derrick was three and Iris was just a baby. If she hadn't learned by now that following directions was impossible for Derrick, she must not have been paying much attention.
"It's dangerous, Derrick," Iris insisted. "Let's go up to the third story and look out the window. We can see the docks from there."
"Barely," Derrick scowled at her. "I'm going, but if you want to just sit up on the third floor and look at the window by yourself, go right ahead." He took off down the road, not bothering to look back. Iris might have been the type of sister that almost always did as she was told and was too scared to jump off a cliff into the ocean, but she was also the type of sister who hated being left behind. Derrick smiled as he heard her footsteps trotting behind him. He led her back behind the shops and down the hill toward the docks. He could see people milling about in the road—men and women alike taking clubs, pitchforks, old swords, bows and arrows, whatever they had around the house that could serve as weapons. The crowd was disorganized and the people nervous, but Derrick hoped it was better than being caught unprepared.