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 the previous installment of this serial, click here.
Waves play a rapid game of tag with the Golden Wind, throwing her about the way small children frighten flocks of birds. Finn is tethered to the starboard rail, notably the wrong side by the way the sea reaches for him, massive tendrils of saltwater grasping at his clothes and invading his nostrils every few moments. If Lorelei means to kill him, she’s surely taking her time.
The men around him are calm—used to chaos commandeering their vessel at a moment’s notice. Bodies clamber along the deck, slam against each other with the pull of each wave. Someone is hanging from the main mast, his white shirt snapping against his skin with enough force that it will be a miracle if there are no bruises. A few shouts go up intermittently, brief punctuations of hardly intelligible sound amidst the thunderclaps.
Finn tries to close his eyes, but the small action serves only to further the bile churning in his stomach. He doesn’t see how there’s any left after vomiting over the rail for three consecutive days. Nevertheless, his body refuses to adhere to logic.
The storm calms after what feels like an absurd amount of hours. There isn’t a single person on board left in dry clothing, crew member or otherwise. One of the sails has torn, a pockmark in need of repair. Finn unties himself from the railing. Nausea lines his throat as he joins the crew in righting the deck.
Alec doesn’t seem bothered by anything. He’s standing on the port side, staring out at the blackening waves. It’s hard to see much in the thin moonlight, but it looks like he’s shaved his beard. The rough look of the sun has faded, drawing inward as if frightened by the dawn of starlight.
Too fatigued, Finn can only manage to turn a few barrels right side up before joining the boatswain at the opposite rail. “Watching the clouds recede?”
Something caught between a scoff and a laugh sticks to Alec’s throat. “Something like that.”
Finn places his hands atop the smooth wood. “I don’t think she just appears when you want her to. Would be quite a trick, though.”
Alec sighs and taps his fingers against the rail. “That it would be.”
They haven’t talked about Lorelei for a week. Finn almost asked him the night prior, over stale bannocks and beer. He’d had the question poised, waiting behind his teeth for the right moment. But Cardan had interrupted with a filthy story about a barmaid and her friends and the words had been lost to laughter.
Of course, it would help if he’d had another dream and woke up choking on lungfuls of water. “Have you ever seen her? Aside from waking up in a pool of water or stumbling across a wanted poster?” Finn asks.
“Once. But I was bleeding to death. Lucky I made it out alive.”
Finn doesn’t push further, allowing the air to filter the silence between them. Now that the barrels above deck and the rigging have been righted, everyone has disappeared, hidden themselves below deck either in their hammocks or in the galley hoping for something decent after the trials of the day.
Alec wipes his hand down his face, closing his eyes. “Thought piracy was the dream. More gold than I’d need and no laws to constrain me. Turns out, no laws are a lot more trouble than it’s worth.” He opens his eyes and draws his hand across the vast expanse of horizon. “They don’t tell ya’ swords aren’t made for weak hands. Or how the sun and the salt eat your skin, drawing out whatever’s left inside and scarring what’s left on the outside. No, they don’t tell you that.” He looks over at Finn, a weak smile playing at his lips. “But, there’s plenty of ale to keep you occupied.”
Laughter floats up between the floorboards. Finn listens and hears the clink of glasses below. He’s sure Cardan is telling another one of his stories, most of which are probably gross exaggerations, from the sound of it.
“Why did you leave?”
Alec shrugs. “Too much wandering around and waiting for something good to come along. We weren’t good enough for Lorelei, but we were damn good.” There’s too much emotion in his tone. He sounds like Brother Aylard teaching him how to read Latin, struck with power and awe in the same breath. He wanted more than just being part of the crew—he wanted to be in control of the great journey he saw his life heading in.
“Do you think she’ll come for us now?”
“Not a chance. But maybe we’ll find her in the waves. You ever hear about her ship?”
Finn nods, a laugh escaping through his nose instead of his mouth. “What else do you think they talk about in taverns? I’d lie on the floor and listen, eyes closed, thinking about the skeletons lining the hull, their mouths gaping. I saw it in my dream. But I can’t tell if that’s what she wanted me to see or if that was the ship’s true form.”
There’s a light off in the distance. Probably one of the Queen’s ships. Alec ignores it.
“We pulled someone onboard once,” Alec says. “Man was a walking corpse, thin, with eyes bulging out of his skull. He wouldn’t speak for two days. All he did was shake and mutter syllables to anyone who tried to speak to him. One night, he woke up screaming. Shouting and thrashing around like a fish trapped in a net. Kept saying she’d come for us all. Drown us in the daylight without so much as a warning. Went on about a legion of voices and rot, always rot. He died the next day.” Alec shakes his head. “I don’t know what to believe anymore, but I don’t think the man was mad.”
“Best get down below before they’ve all but devoured the hull.”
Water drips on Finn’s face. Remnants from the storm still trapped in the timbers. He wipes the moisture from his forehead and turns on his side. Someone a few hammocks down is snoring loud enough to draw thunder from the sky.
Above him, Cardan and Rodger pace the deck, mumbling to each other every now and again. Finn doesn’t see much point in having a night watch in the middle of the open ocean, even with the few slaves on board. He suspects it has something to do with Lorelei and Alec’s odd manner of distancing himself to stare until the sun forces him to blink.
Cardan stops pacing. “I’m telling you, something’s not right. Why would all those lanterns be up at this hour?”
Finn’s own elbow is digging into his side. He unskillfully maneuvers himself onto his back, thrashing around in the hammock until he’s relatively comfortable. They must be talking about the light he saw when he was talking to Alec. Finn watches their shadows cross the deck.
Rodger’s Scottish accent sounds thicker than usual. “Men do like a drink after a storm like that, ya’ ken.”
“Yeah, but I doubt they’re all having a cheery time below without at least someone stumbling onto the deck.”
Rodger scoffs. “When’s the last time ye were drunk and could properly manage steps?”
The snoring grows louder. Finn does his best not to groan. It’d be much easier to join them on the deck, but without a proper explanation, they’d likely ridicule him until he returned to his hammock.
“Doesn’t matter. Something’s wrong.”
“If you’re so worried about it, go n’ wake the captain.”
Their feet shuffle against the deck. A shadow breaks off and heads toward either Captain Thomas’ cabin or Alec’s. Finn waits, trying to latch on to what the silence sounds like between snores. The minutes pass with the span of years.
Two sets of feet march in a languid pattern across the wooden planks. He doesn’t know who Cardan woke, but he woke someone.
“What d’ya think is wrong with her?”
Alec. Whatever Cardan’s thinking, it must not be enough to wake the captain and risk a fit of rage if he’s wrong.
“Remember that story you were telling earlier? About that Lorelei wench sneaking onboard ships?”
“Hmm. How long has she been stationary?” Alec doesn’t discredit him, a curious move. Finn sits up and stretches his neck toward the ceiling.
“A few hours. No shadows on the windows or anything.”
Metal slides against metal. Alec must have his spyglass.
Snoring fills the silence. Finn’s imagination is dripping from his pores and drenching the thin fabric of his shirt. He does his best to leave the hammock without wreaking havoc with his feet. The snoring stops for a moment. Finn holds his breath. If anyone else wakes up, there’s less chance of getting the story from his own eyes and not Cardan’s sordid imagination. He waits a torturous minute before the reverberations begin anew. They’re talking again, but all Finn can hear is the sound of his heart, beating against his chest with enough fervor that he’s sure it will bruise his ribs. The steps are too easy, and he’s breathing in the humid after-storm air in bigger lungfuls than he intended.
“Do you think it’s her?”
Rodger turns to face him, a single blonde eyebrow raised. “Who?”
“Lorelei.” All three men answer at once. Cardan and Alec’s attention has not left the ship floating across the waves.
Alec lifts his right hand and waves Finn over. “Might as well have another opinion.”
When Finn reaches him, he’s handed the bronze spyglass. The metal is cool against Finn’s left eye. Blankets of light surround the vessel in an amber haze. The Queen’s flag flutters from the top of every mast. Nothing stirs above deck or below. But lack of movement can mean anything. Sensible men would be in bed, dreaming of loved ones and fulfilling whatever destiny they’re seeking. Men who spend their lives at sea are more likely to be spending their night in a drunken stupor below deck, away from the eyes of passing ships.
If it is Lorelei, she’s adopted a new method of trickery. A method that seems a bit too easy. Then again, Finn had watched a man in the Triple Crown who flung his hands around in frantic gestures, describing how easy it was to fall into her trap. How they’d stopped to help a grounded vessel and drowned instead. A few patrons laughed, taunted him with snide comments the moment he paused to take a breath. Someone brought him another drink and took great pains to spill the amber liquid over his hands and send him into a fit of fear-induced rage. He left, shouting warnings—promising she would get them all, leave them corpses at the mercy of her tides or stationary decorations on her ship.
Finn shakes his head. “Could be. If it is, she’s taken great pains to make it look like a ship needing some kind of help. Could be they all have the pox.”
Crisp wind weaves through the ship, drawing unsettling whistles through the gaps between the sails. Unblinking, Alec stares at the lamplight in the Captain’s quarters. He taps the rail twice. “We’ll take a small boat over. See if anyone’s home.”
Rodger makes a low sound in his throat. “And who will we be sending in said boat?”
Alec smiles, the corners of his lips menacing in the dim light. “You can stay if you’d like.”
When he doesn’t get a response, he sends Rodger to wake the third mate to stand watch while they investigate. Five minutes later, everyone except the third mate is huddled in the small boat, rowing toward the inert vessel. Finn clutches the oar with white-knuckled fingers. He’s heard so much that he doesn’t know what to expect. After all, their venture could be for nothing.
The lanterns are much dimmer against the ship’s hull. Alec calls out to signal their arrival. Rigging answers in response, a thin squeal signaling the need for repair.
Cardan looks nervous, his fingers fidgeting with every button on his shirt. “Maybe they’re all sleeping. It is late, anyhow.”
Rodger is silent, staring up at the sails as if a ghost will pop out at any moment.
Finn watches Alec’s gaze roam the ship. The look on his face is skeptical, nothing out of place save the presence of other sailors. “No, I don’t think so. Finn, climb up and look around. See if you can find anyone.”
It makes sense. He is the smallest. But something unlike seasickness churns in his stomach. What if she’s there? Waiting for one of them to step onboard and into her trap. He’s taking too long to answer, and Alec is growing impatient. Too late to turn back now.
Finn hoists himself up, fingers tangled in the damp rope dangling over the ship’s side. It hasn’t been used for god knows how long. Barnacles dig into his fingers with each movement, but he doesn’t stop until he’s clambering over the railing and gasping for breath.
The deck looks fine, wood in prime shape, no holes to be seen. It’s certainly not as clean as a naval ship ought to be, but everyone does need a day off once in a while. Finn traces the ship’s form, walking from one end to another and peering into the windows belonging to the captain’s quarters. Inside, the bed is a rumpled mess of sheets and clothing. An open bottle of rum is tipped over on the desk, a full shot glass beside it. Finn bites his lip and continues the rounds.
“No one above deck!” He calls down to the boat below. “I’ll check below to be sure.”
Finn can’t see the steps and has to trust in his senses to guide him into the belly of the ship. Something thick sticks to his shoes, dragging his feet with each step. A horrible stench permeates the air, pungent and far from sweat. Finn covers his nose with his hand, walking further into the cargo hold.
A single candle rests in the middle of the hold, it’s base melted down to a small nub. Around it hang the bodies of the crew, drenched in congealed blood, their organs dangling free outside the confines of skin.
Finn’s eyes widen. His throat constricts, drawing his lungs from his chest and into his abdomen. Something moves near the bow, slow and deliberate.
Despite the fear, Finn refuses to leave. His fingers curl into fists at his side, nails digging into his palm with a searing intensity. “Lorelei?”
Against the growing darkness, there’s a smile of jagged teeth. “In the flesh.”
She steps towards him, skin a mottled grey and lips blacker than tar. When she speaks, her voice carries the timbre of hundreds of others, men and women alike. “Still think I’m worthy of tales?”
Finn tries to swallow, but the dryness in his mouth refuses to sink past his tongue.
Lorelei inches closer, her left foot dragging against the hull. Her hair is black, a tangled nest of curls against her shoulders. “Tell me, Finn, am I beautiful now?”
Her right hand reaches for his wrist, connecting with the skin before he can pull away. Lorelei’s touch burns him to the bone. Black smoke rises from his wrist and fills his nostrils.
Lorelei throws her head back and laughs, the sound loud enough to bring him to his knees. She releases her grip and offers him a smile sharp enough to slice the world in half. “Catch me if you can.”