A swashbuckling piece of historical fiction set in 16th century Britain, with a dark fantasy twist.
by the FO‘s own Flora Soper
To read part one of this serial, click here.
Sapphire waves reach for the dock, and ships of all sizes dance in the harbor. The sky is darker today, stealing night’s cloak and draping its shadow over England. Finn walks through the streets with his arms hidden in the sleeves of his tunic. He’s given blankets and bread to the few people hiding out in alleyways, but his attention lingers on the water. Brother Aylard told him he would find everything he wanted and more in the scriptorium, but he’s been copying manuscripts for three years and all he’s found is fancy letters and hand cramps. God and his service have withered behind stone walls. Despite the knowledge he’s gained, Finn doesn’t understand how the monks can remain enclosed for so long and not lose their minds.
The boatswain catches him staring, pulls taught on the rigging and leans over the rail to shout, “Can I help you wi’ something, Brother?”
Finn’s eyes linger over the man’s features. The sun has painted his skin a light bronze, drawing the skin tight around his face and arms. His beard is untrimmed and coarse, soaked in years of saltwater and sweat, and a spray of scars mar his face and arms. A true seaman.
“Yes. Will you teach me how to sail?”
A laugh tears through the man’s throat. “You? Sail?”
Finn is not deterred. All he can do is say no like the rest. No experience, no job. There’s got to be someone willing to take the chance, someone in need of an apprentice or extra deckhand. He’s not ready to take the vows tomorrow—won’t, even if it lands him back on the street. Finn walks along the dock until the man’s eyes are squinting down at him.
The boatswain nods, his smile directed toward his feet and the smooth wood of the deck. A minute stretches for what feels like an hour. He looks up, tilts his head to the side, and further examines Finn’s featureless tunic. “Isn’t that against your…?”
“Vows. It is, but I have yet to take them, and I want to sail.” If he can just convince him to—
“Say , I do teach you how to sail. What’s in it for me?” The boatswain says and crosses his arms.
Finn does his best to control his excitement, allowing his lips to curve upward only slightly. “A new deckhand who only wants food and a hammock to lie in.”
He nods and straightens his back. “The name’s Alec. Come by tomorrow morning, and for Christ’s sake, don’t wear that bloody sack.”
Finn returns to the monastery to state his intentions, his innards swirling together and pulling apart like tides. The halls reach for him with frigid fingers, forcing the dull spice of the incense through his nostrils. All he has to do is tell the truth. Easy. Brother Aylard will be upset, but he’ll understand. He’s the only one who will.
He finds Brother Aylard in the chapel, kneeling before the alter with his hands pressed together in prayer. There’s something serene about watching him at peace in the vaulted room. Perhaps if he had learned sooner, he would have felt a similar devotion in this space. Finn stays near the back, taking a seat on the pew to his left. After ten minutes, his hands start to shake. All he has to do is be honest, yet something about waiting in this room makes him feel like he’s being tried for witchcraft. Easy enough considering he wants to discover the secrets of the sea and the woman rumored to control it.
“No need to be nervous. Each of us has our own path and we must follow it.” Brother Aylard stands and raises a hand, beckoning Finn to join him.
The cross behind the altar watches Finn’s approach. “How did you know?”
Brother Aylard chuckles. “I had a feeling. You learned quickly, and sometimes that leads elsewhere. However, I must mention the decision comes as a shock. You’ve been doing so well, learning the ways of the scriptures, walking with God and the King. I thought knowledge was what you wanted? A home to feel comfortable in. Tell me, what has changed?”
Finn sighs and looks anywhere but at his friend. “I love all of what I’ve learned here, how to speak and act like heirs and princes, but I am not content staying within these walls. The sea is where I want to be, what I want to learn more about. But I thank you, for all that you’ve taught me. Without you, I don’t know where I’d be. It might have even been a cell, or it might have been the same work, but I am better for what I’ve learned here.”
“I see.” Brother Aylard nods, fingers crossing and uncrossing just above his stomach. “Where are you off to?”
Finn shrugs, the small movement lifting the tension in his chest. “I don’t know. A boatswain is going to teach me how to sail. I imagine I’ll end up somewhere in the world before I make it back to port.”
He nods and places his hand atop Finn’s shoulder. “I wish you well, my friend. May God be with you.”
Finn does not know how to reply. He tries to speak, but every word he knows refuses to make an appearance. It would probably come across a strange array of syllables, anyway. Better just to leave.
Alone and without belongings, he heads toward the Triple Crown. There are more people inside than he’s ever seen before. Drinking until morning has either become a popular sport, or someone of importance has a story to share. Inside the tavern there are more familiar faces than Finn anticipated. Everyone is laughing, shouting, and toasting mugs full of ale. Galien is standing atop the bar, stumbling over his feet as he recounts a story Finn hasn’t heard him tell before.
“We pulled in the net and there were two silver fish, all tangled up in the bottom. Never seen a net like that catch only two small fish. So, we’re staring at the damn things, wondering what the hell’s going on, when both start writhin’ like they’re possessed.”
Finn inches his way closer, accepting a sloshing mug from a skinny man who looks like he was born from the earth and never stayed above the surface for long.
Galien chugs an entire pint before continuing. “And then…then they start growing! They go from the size o’ a woman’s hand to the size o’ a man. Luckily, Donald was smart enough to cut the damn net free before they got any bigger. We all ran over to the railing to see what happened once they were back in the water, and by God’s bones, those things turned into dragons! Tried to eat the blasted ship, too.”
The people surrounding the bar laugh and prod each other with elbows. Another sailor tries to argue that the men simply did not have enough ale with breakfast. Finn raises his mug and swallows until his lungs feel like they’re coated in amber-colored warmth.
“Did it…talk in any way?” Finn asks.
Another man spoke of a similar creature once—said it began as a silver fish and then became a beautiful woman who spoke to him in a hundred voices. Galien stares at Finn, his jaw held tight enough that it looks to ready to break free of the skin. “How did you know that?”
Finn belches and offers his mug. “I didn’t.”
Chatter erupts in a thunderous burst. Voices clamor over one another and blend into a stream of noise loud enough to block out thought. Simon ushers Galien off the bar and rushes to hand out more drink. The crowd is full of elbows. Finn does his best to push through but is stopped by a strong hand latching onto his wrist. “Monk!”
Finn can place the voice in his mind, but the face is a blur of a memory. “Not anymore, no.” He lifts his chin and turns around.
Alec releases his grip and something just short of a laugh passes his upturned lips. “Didn’t take you as a tavern man.”
“Where else would I hear such wonderous tales?” Another mug finds its way to Finn’s hand and he grins. “This place is where I first learned of life at sea, thought it might do well to visit before the morning.”
Another story has begun at the other end of the bar. This time the teller isn’t someone he recognizes. People filter past Finn and Alec, ambling over to increase their chances of actually hearing a few words. The ones that don’t care remain at their tables, gambling or drinking away the month’s rent.
“How’d you know those…things spoke to him?” Alec nods his head toward the door.
Considering the volume, Finn walks with him outside. Alec is still wearing the same clothing he was in when they met, but in the absence of the sun, he looks much younger. The water must do something strange with the sunlight, creating the appearance of age during the day and stealing it away at night.
Finn stumbles and reaches a hand toward the wall nearest to his right. “The same way anyone does. Listening.”
Removed from the stench of beer and sweat, the breeze coming off the ocean echoes the pleasant smell of a woman’s perfume. Finn closes his eyes and breathes in the salt.
Beside him, Alec chuckles. “Aye, listening. Why’s it that you’ve gone and left them monks? They’ve a much better way of it than anyone, ‘cept the King of course.”
“I thought learning would be enough adventure. That, in there, I could find out more about the sea and what I heard in taverns. Turns out it’s more of a bookkeeping place. Pretty, though.” The monastery was great, it just wasn’t enough to keep him happy. Wasn’t enough to keep away his dreams of saltwater and sails. “Why did you choose sailing?”
Alec stops and stares at him, eyebrows drawn up toward his forehead. “Who said it was a choice?”
A group of dogs barks a few streets over, chasing either a shadow or a child unafraid to play tag with teeth. Maybe it’s Ellis, trying to rouse one of the old women into a fury. Finn hasn’t seen him since a month into his training. Ellis didn’t want anything to do with a know-it-all who preferred learning to mischief.
“No one,” says Finn. “Just a guess. Any chance you know an Ellis? Likes to…to piss off half the town and jump from roofs and windows?”
Alec scratches his beard, glancing toward the glimmer of moonlight atop the water surrounding the docked ships. “Blonde kid? Scrawny and always covered in dirt?”
“That’s him.” Finn smiles. He never wanted to wash, even when it would earn him a good wage.
The dogs keep barking. Alec continues to prod through his beard. “I believe they hung him for theft last year. Two towns over.”
Suddenly, the earth feels like it’s made of clouds. Buildings and people fall all around Finn, reaching for handholds that don’t exist. Finn is on the ground, knees vibrating against the cobblestones. Hanged. He should have known. Should have been there to keep him away from the recklessness that sang in his bones. Should have visited more often despite Ellis’ protests and crude words.
Alec is saying something, moving closer and repeating the same strand of unintelligible syllables. Shadows steal the light from Finn’s eyes and press his head to the ground.
Light falls around Finn in shifting patterns. His body feels too light and everything is blue. There’s a pressure in his eardrums, but everything around him is silent. He looks up. Above him, the water ripples, making the clouds look like distorted decorations.
Submerged beneath the surface, his sight is still clear, unpolluted by the salt that drives sailors to madness. Finn turns his head to the right. A ship rests on the ocean floor, it’s planking jutting out in variegated patterns, not quite like the intricacies of a chapel, but alike enough in their shaping to draw him closer.
He doesn’t notice the absence of sea life, or the swill of the tide propelling him forward. The water is comforting—a warm embrace reminiscent of the rough grasp of a monk’s habits as they gather for prayer.
As Finn approaches the wreck, he can see faint movement along the ship’s side, almost as if it’s breathing, taking in swooping lungfuls of salt-water and expelling gentle currents.
The odd shapes comprising the hull grow, reaching toward Finn. He watches the water around him ripple and swirl. The starboard deck shapes itself into a jagged mouth. Inside the gap, thousands of human bones sit in incomplete statues, scattered in every position, sharper than any knives he’s ever seen.
A woman’s voice breaks the silence, resounding with an odd tone inside his head. “I heard you calling. What is it that you want? Not money, clearly. Fame, perhaps?”
Finn tries to spin around, only to be slowed by the water. “I don’t know.” And he doesn’t. If he knew she would come to him in a dream, he would have figured that out a long time ago.
He blinks and he’s inside the ship. Every skull’s jaw moves as Lorelei speaks again. “I don’t play games with little boys. Are you a slow one? Everything inside your head is jumbled.”
“No. And I’ll tell you when I see you.”
Water rushes into his lungs, searing his throat and burning his eyes as it tries to push past them and into his skull. Lorelei laughs, the sound carries the timbre of hundreds of others, men and women alike.
“You’ll see me when you’re dead.”
Finn chokes. Saltwater pours from his mouth and drips down from his hair. Every bone in his body feels like it’s made of liquid. He sits up and tries to wipe the water from his eyes. The room moves with him and he gasps. “Lorelei.”
No one is in the room with him. Cluttered trunks line the floor and a few large chains hang from the ceiling. Alec must have brought him aboard his ship after he lost consciousness.
He clears his throat and winces. Every breath feels like he’s swallowed a good ten swords. “Alec?”
It was just a dream. There’s no water. There can’t be. But there is. Finn takes a deep breath and calls out again, this time louder. “Alec!”
He sits in silence, running his hands over his clothes and trying to catch his breath. Five minutes pass before Alec opens the door. “Good, you’re awa—”
A tangle of unfinished sentences rushes from Finn’s lips. “Lorelei—a shipwreck—underwater—almost drowned—a dream.”
The door slams and Alec is on the bed beside him, eyes wide. “You saw her? Here? What did she look like?”
Finn shakes his head. Water drops sprinkle over the soaked mattress. “No, no. She just…talked.”
“I wouldn’t call being half-drowned while asleep ‘just talking.’ How did she do that while you were here?” He pulls a towel from a trunk near the bed and hands it to Finn.
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.”