The Devil's Looking-Glass - By Mark Chadbourn

THE MERCILESS SUN boiled in a silver sky. Waves of heat shimmered across the seething main deck of the becalmed galleon where the seven sailors knelt, heads bowed. As blood dripped from their noses on to their sweat-sodden undershirts, they muttered prayers in Spanish, their strained voices struggling to rise above the creaking of the hull timbers flexing against the green swell. Harsh light glinted off the long, curved blades pressed against each of their necks.

At the sailors’ backs, the grey men waited in silence. Ghosts, they seemed at times, not there but there, their bone-white faces wreathed in shadow despite the unremitting glare. Oblivious of the sweltering heat, they wore grey leather bucklers, thick woollen breeches and boots, all silver-mildewed and reeking of rot. As still as statues, they were, drawing out the agony of the whimpering men before the swords would sweep down.

Captain Juan Martinez de Serrano knelt on the forecastle, watching the row of seamen from under heavy brows. Even now he could not bring himself to look into the terrible faces of the ones who had boarded his vessel. Aft, the grey sails of the other galleon billowed and the rigging cracked, although there was no wind and had not been for three days. Serrano lowered his head in desolation. How foolish they had been. Though they knew the devils of the Unseelie Court were like wolves, the lure of gold was too great. The captain cast his mind back to that night ten days gone when his men had staggered out of the forest with their stolen hoard. Barely could they believe they had escaped with their lives, and their laughter had rung out across the waves as they filled the hold and dreamed of the glory that would be lavished upon them by King Philip in Madrid. They had set sail with a fair wind and all had seemed well, until the grey sails appeared on the horizon, drawing closer by the hour.

The steel bit into his neck and he winced. They should have known better. Now, save for the last eight of them, blood soaked into the boards of the quarterdeck where they lay, each one slaughtered within moments, though they were among the fiercest fighters upon the Spanish Main.

A rhythmic rattling stirred him. Raising his eyes once more, he watched a strange figure approach. The sound came from trinkets and the skulls of mice and birds braided into long gold and silver-streaked hair. Hollow cheeks and dark rings under his eyes transformed his features into a death’s-head. He wore grey-green robes covered with unrecognizable symbols outlined in a tracing of gold that glistered in the midday sun, like one of the gypsy conjurers who performed at the fair in Seville. Sweeping out his right arm, he addressed Serrano in a voice like cracking ice. ‘You are honoured. Our King.’

Serrano swallowed. He sensed the new arrival before he saw him, in a weight building behind his eyes and a queasy churn in his stomach. He closed his eyes. How long would this torment continue? A steady tread crossed the main deck and came to a halt in front of him. Silence followed.

When he had mouthed a prayer, the captain squinted. A pair of grey boots fell into view, and the fur-lined edge of a shimmering white cloak. He heaved his shaking head up, following that pristine cloth until he reached the head of the one who looked down on him. But the brutal sun hung behind the figure and the features were lost. Serrano was glad of that.

‘I am Mandraxas, of the High Family, and until my sister is brought back to the land of peace, I hold the Golden Throne.’ The voice sang like the wind in the high branches. Serrano could not believe it was the voice of a cruel man, until he remembered that this was not a man at all, but a creature with no understanding of compassion or gentleness or the kindnesses that tied mortals together. ‘Who are you?’

The captain muttered his response, his mouth so dry he could barely form words.

‘Your name means nothing,’ the King replied. ‘Who are you, who dares to trespass on our land and steal our gold? Who thinks you are our equal?’ When Serrano failed to reply, Mandraxas continued, ‘You were damned the moment you insulted us with your arrogance. Let Deortha show you what you truly are to us.’ He waved a languid hand towards the main deck where the robed intruder Copyright 2016 - 2021