A swashbuckling piece of historical fiction set in 16th century Britain, with a dark fantasy twist.
by the FO‘s own Flora Soper
Eight-year-old Finn is pressed against the floor, his left ear throbbing against the wood. Every night it’s the same, yet the pain refuses to dull with time, a reminder of his desperation to learn something new. Anything more exciting than sweeping floors and pretending he knows how to read and write like the boys who sometimes travel with their fathers to port.
In the tavern below, the sailors from Plymouth are talking about Lorelei Hightide again, the one they call pirate and siren in the same sentence. No one ever talks about her the same way. One night she’s a blonde wench fair enough to ransom a man’s soul, the next she’s Satan’s mistress and is made of coral.
Finn has tried to create a picture in his mind and on what little paper he can manage to find, but he’s no artist and the stories vary so much that no line is ever definite. His friend Ellis isn’t any better. He wants her to look the way he envisions, choosing his own truths regardless of any tales that creep up the cracks in the floorboards.
The nightly breeze sweeps in from the docks, bringing with it the unique blend of brine, spoiled fish, sweat, and ambition. Finn closes his eyes and imagines the waves, docile and vicious all at once as they reach toward land. There’s a hunger in his bones to unearth what rests beneath the surface, what creates legends and arouses deep fear and admiration in men. If only he wasn’t a bastard working for room and board. Then…then he could find a teacher and learn how to mark and understand his own thoughts and the meditations of others.
Perhaps he could find one now, save enough of the small tips he earns clearing tables and hire someone smart and willing to teach a scrawny peasant boy the way of language and letters. If by any chance he succeeds, he can keep his own records and work out the mysteries of the sea by his own hand.
Mrs. Williams drowns out the storyline, yelling obscenities at the top of her lungs toward someone on the street below. If ever given the chance, she would yank the ears of the entire community and banish them all from her doorstep. The woman is too impassioned for her own good.
Ellis drops through the window laughing down at the old woman and shouting back a few choice words himself. As he lands, his feet create thunder over the murmuring voices downstairs.
“At it again, aren’t they?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer, lowering himself to the floor with the grace of a drunkard. One of the louder sailors stops his tale to question the noise. Finn rolls his eyes. There’s some murmuring and someone with a gruff voice bold enough to ask if he’s had too much ale. He wonders how different their tales would be in the absence of drink and whatever else it is they use to put themselves in such an untroubled mood. As it is, they’re drunk enough to invent a hundred other stories and fall face first-into the counter within the hour.
Galien, a regular of the Triple Crown, rambles on about a sea-giant with tentacles the size of castles that tore his ship to splinters in a matter of breaths. Every few months he’ll tell the same story and, somehow, he still receives the same awed reactions as if it were the first time he told the tale.
“He’s full of it.” Ellis says.
Finn glances toward him and shrugs. “Could be true.”
If Lorelei exists, there may be other things inhabiting the ocean. Things men and children can dream of, ways to venture from the dullness of treading the same patterns every day.
“Don’t see how. Someone would ha’ caught ‘emselves one of ‘em by now.”
“How would anyone catch anythin’ that big?”
Seeing as most of the creatures mentioned are monstrous in size and ferocity, he can’t think of anything himself. Sure, fisherman boast their gigantic catches every few days, but no one has ever brought in something as massive as the creatures described night after night in the tavern.
Ellis prods further. “D’ya think she’s real then? That Lorelei wench?”
He already knows the answer—has been told many times—yet refuses to acknowledge that such things are possible. Finn can imagine it to the faint trace of moonlight coming in from the uncovered window. Lorelei stands in the center of the room, her veins vibrant, multicolored echoes of coral. Water drips from her skin like rivers. Ellis looks at her and blinks, seeing nothing apart from imagination. Finn sighs.
“Yes,” he says.
There’s no way to tell without journeying the sea himself, but the disparity in her legend and the crown’s suspicion can’t be for the sake of imagination. The King wouldn’t waste his time on a children’s story, and neither would hardened men.
“They wouldn’t talk of her s’much if she isn’t.”
Ellis nods and returns his attention to the sailors. Their voices grow louder with each drink, soaring through the rafters until neither boy can hear anything else. Finn offers distant laughs as Ellis tries to joke in between the chorus of roaring men.
An hour of listening and half-heard comments, and Ellis decides he’s had enough illusion for the night. He leaves the same way he came in—through the window with cannon fire for footsteps.Finn doesn’t move from his spot and nods off during talk of run-of-the-mill pirates. Symon’s closing shout wakes him soon after. Time to clean.
He trudges down the stairs, left hand rubbing against his eye in a stubborn and useless habit. As usual, the sight that awaits him is chaos.
Tables lie strewn across the tavern. Spilt ale soaks into the floorboards and sticks to Finn’s bare soles with each step. Righting and returning the tables to their proper positions siphons every ounce of strength from his frail body and pulls each of the muscles in his arms so tightly he’s afraid they’ll snap. The silence makes it worse. Without the distraction of clinking mugs and raucous chatter, Finn can hear each protest in his body, from his lungs to his feet. A horrible wheezing sound squeezes itself from his chest. Finn tries to clear his throat of the invisible obstruction and coughs instead. Nothing to do about it. The sun will be up in a matter of hours. Symon will beat him until all that’s left is a bruise if the place isn’t in proper working order.
He’s scouring the floor and humming a sea shanty he’d heard from the docks earlier in the morning when a strange feeling sweeps over him. Someone is standing in the doorway, watching him work. Whoever it is, it can’t be Symon, the man is always raging after a long night and impossible to miss.
He forces himself to turn around for a glimpse at the stranger. A man in plain clothing stands in the entryway, hands clasped behind his back. Finn’s heard of men who wander the streets to offer assistance where they can, but he’s not sure if this man is one of them. If he is, he’s come farther than most.
“I cannot help but notice the sickness in your breath. Would it trouble you if I offer my assistance?”
It would. Finn continues scrubbing, the pain in his arms fading with each motion. The man’s speech is too formal to come from either the village or the docks. He knows of a monastery nearby, but he’s never heard of any monks wandering this close to the docks. He almost wants to laugh.
“How am I t’ know if I don’t know who tis’ that’s talkin’?”
“Forgive me, it seems I have forgotten my manners. I am Brother Aylard, from the monastery.”
Another cough collapses Finn’s lungs, filling the empty space between him and Brother Aylard. Curiosity compels him to look, but work refuses to leave his hands. The monk is clothed in the usual dull garb of the profession: a coarse sac-like robe over a brown tunic with too neat of a leather belt around his waist. For all the holy men lack in possessions, Brother Aylard looks well-fed. Thinking it one of Ellis’ tricks, he turns back to his work.
“Why’d you want to help someone like me?”
“Because everyone deserves to be blessed in some way or another.” This response is so soft compared to the swish of the coarse brush he almost ignores it entirely.
“What if I don’t know faith of any kind?”
One of the owls roosting above the tavern’s entrance holds the pause as an opportunity to release a screech loud enough to wake the dead. He listens for a gasp or the slight shuffle of feet and catches neither. Odd for a man so accustomed to silence. A small chain clinks. Finn’s heard that some men of the order wear little treasured crosses, but he’s never met anyone who’s seen one in person.
“No matter, the Lord welcomes all who seek to follow him.”
Temptation overrules routine. He releases the brush but does not look toward Brother Aylard, preferring instead to stare at the farthest wall. “Do I have to believe if…to learn as you do?”
A stranger to faith, he’s never thought about what it might mean to partake in religion as others do. The thought raises a queer bubbling in his stomach.
Brother Aylard hesitates. “For the most part, yes.”
Finn turns around, clutching the now damp brush between his rigid fingers. “The hell does that mean?”
Brother Aylard sighs, his fingers hesitant to reach for the cross at his neck. “It means that we will teach you for as long as you like. But in that time, you must adhere to faith as you would the King.”
“And if I don’t want to do any of that, will ya’ still help wi’ the cough?” At present, Finn would rather learn, but the question is worth knowing if he doesn’t take up with the whole faith business.
The brush grows heavy in his hands, pinching the muscles in his wrists with such pressure that, for a moment, he thinks they might snap off. “Would I have to come straight there?”
Brother Aylard smiles and clasps his hands together just in front of his stomach. “Not at all. Come when you are ready.”
He turns to leave and disappears behind an alley, leaving only a slight scuff where his shoes had been moments prior.
Finn stares after him for a moment before returning to his work. He’s so invested in leaving the strange interaction that the tavern is in top condition after only an hour. It’s only when he climbs up the stairs and closes the door that the turmoil resurfaces and smothers his mind, clearing away every tale uttered hours prior.
Tonight, it’s the window facing town that entices him. From there he can see the looming statue of the monastery. Warm yellow light permeates the darkness, illuminating the few dark figures milling about outside the walls. Brother Aylard could be out there, waiting with the patience of an owl. It wouldn’t surprise him; the monks are queer folk and he’d demonstrated as much when he entered the tavern.
He doesn’t notice the destruction he’s inflicting on his fingers until they burn like fresh embers. The assault continues until he can feel blood from the nailbed drip down his index finger. Contemplation of the unknown was easy before religion was involved. Now it rests in his stomach, an anchor made of stale bread and watered-down soup. Maybe this is what it feels like to be tossed about in a ship during a storm, to run headfirst into danger with only a lingering thought of mortality. Finn looks down at his hands, the left flaming in the dull light. Each finger wears a scattering of blood. If he picks at it much longer, he’s sure to make the hand lame for a time.
Staring at the isolated building, he can see the rows of scrolls, carefully ordered and arranged against the bricked walls. Everything he wants to know waits upon a hill and an open doorway. All he has to do is accept, and yet there are bigger parts of him that can’t cope with leaving the Triple Crown and its inhabitants. There is no better place to hear tales of the glorious and vicious Lorelei Hightide—no one better than sailors to speak of everything unimaginable hidden in the mist that swallows the sea at dawn. And what about Ellis? Finn is certain there will be no more mischief and certainly no more contact if he becomes another one of the well-fed and well-clothed people Ellis spends the majority of his day tormenting.
Symon won’t care much either way. He’d only be upset about having to find someone else willing to work for scraps and shelter. Ellis…is another story. He can’t stand anyone who has the prospect of doing better off than him, especially those he knows. If Finn leaves, he’ll have no one, and who knows what that would do to his temper?
He leaves the window and crawls into bed, imagining sapphire waves and floating papers. The next morning Finn wakes and walks to the window again. Monks file into what he guesses is the chapel, their drab robes a winding mass against the vibrant grass surrounding their home. Nothing extravagant is happening in the streets below. A few buildings leak muted smoke into the sky and a sprinkling of men roam aimlessly through the town. Finn taps his fingers against the wood. He stares at the procession and imagines the hall they’re entering. There are no scrolls and the walls span the height of giants. A golden cross rests on the farthest wall, looking down on the congregation, but with an heir quite different from the King looking down at his subjects.
And then he’s in his room. The walls are bare, and his flat mass of canvas-covered straw is more of a shadow than an actual bed. There are no figures or personal trinkets, only his notebook, resting open in the middle of the floor. Its crowded pale-ink pages threaten to break free and pull him close, a siren’s call written by his own hand.