My dearest Maddie, you must forgive me for leaving you. There is something I must do and alas I cannot bring you with me. You are too young to understand and I fear that you will not survive. Stay strong, daughter. There will come a time where you will see many a great thing in disbelief. You must hold fast. Be careful who you place your belief in. Trust these journals to no one but yourself. There are many wicked men who hide beneath pious means. Do not trust their Gods. Do not trust their intentions. Do not trust their words.
Trust only in blood.
My knife pressed deeper into his skin, threatening to bring forth a river of red. I bared my teeth, as I glared into the man’s wide eyes. His fingers twitched open and shut, his blade on the floor useless as I pinned him against the stone wall.
“You try to steal from me?” I snarled, holding his cloak tighter around his neck, wanting to throttle him with it. I had no patience with pocket thieves and this one had caught me on a particularly bad day.
“No ma’am!” he spluttered.
My grip tightened and I lifted him higher. “So you’re a liar now, huh?”
“No ma’am! I mean yes, ma’am- I’m sorry!” his face creased up in brown waves of fear. “Times is tough! Please- let us go!”
I stared at him a few seconds longer. Times were tough. That much was evident. The seven years that I had been away from Greyport had not been kind. Everything seemed more tired, the edges of bricks crumbling or already in the throes of decay. My nose prickled at the reeking stench of the man, dragging my attention back to him. I took in his sodden and stained clothing, my eyes sliding over his pox marked skin and blackened teeth.
My lip curling, I released his spine from Greyport’s walls and shoved him aside. He stumbled, his eyes darting to his rusty little knife on the floor. I stood on it, the metal scraping against the cobbled pavements as the ocean crashed below us in the darkness.
He licked his cracked lips, as if weighing his options. “Bitch!” he shouted before turning tail and running away.
Pausing for a moment to listen for any further sign of trouble, I sighed and kicked the grubby little blade into the darkness. The rain continued to drizzle in a continuous wall of water as I stepped through the night. I pulled my cloak tighter to myself, my pack beginning to weigh heavy on my back. I had parted company with a small ship from the Mainlands after spending the last seven years on and off deck. I had spent most of that time sharing sleeping quarters with the rest of my companions, and I was desperate for my own space for the night.
Trusting my weary feet, I walked up the myriad of steps into the heart of Greyport, the wind trying to pry the clothes from my back, its voice hissing and jeering as it flung my hood back and tore through my hair.
Muttering a soft curse, I walked faster.
My hand reached out to the ancient stone walls to steady myself. My eye was caught by the once bright banners hanging overhead, now colourless rags of skin ripping in the wind. This ancient town whose walls that once resonated and trembled with music and celebration, now lay comatose beneath the layers of mould and storm born scars. It had been a wealthy trading merchant town, its ships regularly coming into port either to load up or deliver goods from across the seas from the Mainlands Passage or the Damned Gates. Twenty years had passed with the gates to the aptly named Damned Waters shut and locked down. No one had come in and no one had gone out.
Not since the last ship had sunk.
Thoughts on the verge of turning dark, I looked up to see I had arrived at the Appleby Inn just in time. The lights glowed gold and hazy from the thick glass windows. Rowdy laughter and shouting reaching my ears above the din of the ocean. It was the oldest pub in the city, its walls surviving sieges, wars, fires and storms. My mouth twisted into a wry smile as I wondered suddenly why I was still standing outside.
Warmth hit my chilled bones as I shut the heavy door behind me, the scent of hot broth and ale reaching my nostrils as quickly as the laughter died.
The locals were staring at me, the drinks hovering in mid-air as their eyes drank in my appearance. Greyport had never been used to strangers. Nothing changed.
Rolling my eyes, I sat myself down at a table furthest away from the prying stares and nearest to the fire. A lot had happened in seven years. No one would recognise me.
Or so I thought…
I looked up to see a young man in his mid-to-late twenties, a bronze beard covering most of his tanned face, dressed in brown leathers with great, black boots and heavy buckles. His eyes were a true sky-blue, a scar marring one dark brow. Long sun-bleached hair had been braided practically, part of his head shorn and tattooed. His hands had been tattooed also.
I could barely hold back the smile that sliced my face.
“Davvey Coalcrook,” I said, standing. “You look nothing like the boy I once knew.”
I didn’t have time to breathe before he suddenly grappled me in a crushing bear hug. I smacked his arm to ease my cracking ribs and almost staggered back into my chair when he released me. Davvey had been a childhood friend of mine, and I suppose for a while we had been sweethearts when we had discovered what growing up meant. My cheeks hot as I tried to regain my composure, trying not to think of my first clumsy kiss.
He had been the only boy who had shown any kindness to me growing up. There had been others who had stared at my changing form, turning me from a freckled awkward thing to a young woman. But they had been afraid, thinking me an unnatural thing. Davvey had never seemed to care what anyone thought of him as we spent more and more time with each other into the summer months.
“By all the powers,” he muttered, unable to keep his eyes off me. “Everyone thought you were dead!”
I blinked in shock. “What?”
“I didn’t believe it for a second,” he said, his smile widening, not noticing my shock. “Too many lives that black cat Maddox, I said to my ma when she told me.” He shook his head and let out a long sigh. “I’m glad you’re ok.”
I had no idea that people would think I had died. True, I had been gone a long time, but dead? Maybe it had been wishful thinking. An unexpected sting of happiness raced through me that Davvey hadn’t believed the rumours. He never had believed what the townsfolk said about me- since he was a small boy he had always known his own mind.
My memories were disturbed as he reached forth and touched a strand of hair, letting it pour through his fingers. “You grew it.” His face broke out in a grin. “You knew I always liked it long. I was heartbroken when you sheared it off.”
My face felt like a furnace. Before I left I had taken a knife to my hair and cut it off in huge lumps of black ink, handful by heavy handful until it lay in a puddle around my feet. It wasn’t long after that I left Greyport behind for my training.
I pulled my hair back from him self-consciously, reclaiming it and trying not to let his smile disarm me. He had always known how to make me drop my guard. I tossed the lock back over my shoulder so he couldn’t reach for it again, the tips of my hair touching the base of my spine. I straightened. I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I wouldn’t flush and blush at Davvey’s compliments. My stomach growled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since last night’s meal.
Motioning to a young girl with breasts almost spilling over her dress, I ordered some of the stew and ale. She nodded and whisked off, skirts sashaying around her as her gaze quickly ran over my appearance.
She was too young to remember me, but I knew I stood out.
My mother had not come from Greyport. No one knew where she came from in fact. Greyport didn’t welcome strangers, which (I always thought) was strange considering it had once been a bustling town of traders and foreigners from afar. My mother was different.
Pale skin, long, wild, dark hair and eyes so vividly green and blue at the same time that you didn’t know whether you were looking into the depths of the ocean or the heart of a storm. I missed her, the years we spent together too few. I missed her soothing voice and her magical lullabies. She had been a strong woman who refused to marry my father despite the love they shared. He had told me it was because she would then be bound to the land, trapped by the rules of Greyport’s church. My mother did not share my father’s religion; but he loved her anyway.
They lived in his house for a time and then would return to her home within the Half Woods across the waters. She was happy to be an outcast in Greyport, her love for my father and I outweighing any joy the people could give.
Now my parents were gone, I was the reminder of the woman this town thought they were rid of. I had never been anointed in the church, meaning I was unclean, unholy and suspect to demons and spirits. The fact that I was born out of wedlock didn’t help matters. I was a child born out of sin.
“You look… well,” Davvey said, his gaze drinking in the sight of me. “You look like you’re prepared for battle or something.”
My smile hardened slightly, remembering the would-be thief. “Have to be prepared,” I said dryly, noticing two men glaring at my garb in disapproval.
I was as welcome as a Hunter’s whore in this city- not that any would chose to visit here. Hunters were the people you called in when the church didn’t work. Mercenaries who specialised in the… occult. No one wanted to be a Hunter. You were either born to the role or you were taken on as an apprentice. Now the Hunters were gone. There was no need for supernatural mercenaries to charge families coin for exorcisms or hunt the undead.
The only evil left was what man created.
The Dark Era was over- or so the church was constantly telling us. Heathen Gods and beliefs were no longer tolerated. This was the Age of Enlightenment.
The benefit of not being anointed was that I was safe from the priests’ bullshit and wandering hands. The downside was that when my father died, his house passed to his brother’s son, Marcus. I had stayed with my cousin’s repressed family for a time, their presence turning my home into a grey and joyless place. They were a God fearing family, and despite making me go to church every week, pray before meals, and at night to repent my ‘sins’, it did nothing to keep me from my greatest love: the sea.
I would climb out of my bedroom window each night, just to run along the harbour, sometimes swimming out into the depths to float on my back beneath the milky moon. They would find me dripping wet and happily asleep before the fire, my hair curling with drying saltwater. The beatings had been worth it every time.
“Are you staying with your family?”
I gave Davvey a look that answered his question.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Oh…”
My cousin had tried to marry me off to a ship merchant who had been passing through, simply to get rid of me. He had betrothed me to the stranger, without my knowing. The merchant had promised to return in a year’s time. I discovered about the engagement two days before of stranger’s return, as my cousin’s wife attempted to get me to try on an elaborate gown. Alarm had struck through me instantly. They had never bought me anything- why now? My cousin’s wife, too haughty and full of disdain to put up with my ingratitude told me of their intent. Enraged, I had grabbed a knife and shorn my hair off, fleeing the house to the Half Woods, not returning for a week until I was sure the stranger’s ship had left. Upon returning, my cousin struck me and cast me out of my father’s house.
I think he had been looking for an excuse to throw me out for a long time.
Despite what the town thought of my mother, they valued duty before all else. It had been my cousin’s duty as the head of our family to take care of his recently orphaned family member. But no one blinked an eye when I had been thrown out, a bag of my belongings strewn at my feet.
I spent the next two years living from place to place, working at the harbour selling fish. Despite the Damned Gates being shut, the Mainlands still brought merchant goods to harbour. I had no trouble with the waters or keeping my nets full. Even when there had been a storm, my lobster traps were always bursting with eager claws and my nets heaving with scales.
The trouble had been selling it.
No one wanted to buy full price from a sea witch’s daughter.
“So, how long are you here for?” Davvey said, changing the subject as the girl returned with a bowl of beef stew and a hunk of bread. She set down a tankard of ale and threw him a wink that made him smirk. We sat back down as I tore into my meal, not caring if I appeared ravenous- I was.
“For a time, yes,” I said, swallowing a huge chunk of bread. “I’ve come to get my father’s journals.”
My father had been a scholar. He was fascinated with the sea, the world and its lands, he travelled far and wide documenting every place he had been before the Damned Gates had been closed. He was a renowned explorer, respected for his contribution to the Great Library and his teachings to young pupils at the Mainland College.
The Mainland college had been a place where the rich sent their sons to learn about the world before they set off on their own- a place for the elite. My father’s humble beginnings were not looked down on, his reputation exceeding him wherever he went. His specialism was too broad for him to have his own class however, his experience ranging from sailing, to customs of other countries, antiquities and medicine. It had worked well for our family, as a teacher without a subject was unable to be granted residency, enabling him to travel home to us after his short visits to the College. To say your son had been taught by Ezra Black caused quite the stir in polite society.
My father had started at the bottom as a sail hand, and although he had professed no great wish to be Captain of his own, his discoveries and thirst for knowledge was what made him an asset to any journey. The ships he returned on came back from the most bustling of ports, carried a find that had been thought lost for the past hundred years or had discovered a new route to the lands beyond.
He kept all of his information within his journals, refusing to show anyone but my mother and I, devised in a script that was only comprehensible to us. His journals were what made him valuable to have on any ship, able to direct and advise captains of their ventures.
It was in my blood to pursue a career on the ocean. It hadn’t occurred to me until my body started to change, that being a woman would stop me from achieving my wish.
“Women don’t belong on the seas,” one Captain had snorted derisively, just after signing papers for a twelve year old boy to join on board. “Go find yourself a husband.” His eyes twinkled, as he took in my appearance and recognised me. “Oh that’s right- you’re already engaged.” He laughed, his white beard malting crumbs as his jaw clicked in a great guffaw. “He’ll come back for you, I’m sure, lassie!” he shouted as I tore through the streets, humiliated.
It made me even more determined to find work on a ship. It was a miracle that I had found Jenna, the woman who took me on with the Shipmasters. Seven years had passed since that day. I was ready to prove myself.
“What do you want with the journals?” Davvey asked, snatching a piece of my bread. He swallowed it before I could object.
I smiled and sat back in my chair. “I’m going to need them if I’m sailing beyond the Damned Gates.”
Silence descended upon the inn like a wave crashing upon the shore.
I didn’t move, didn’t speak- I simply sat there, feeling the shock and disgust from the people surrounding me, the corner of my mouth twitching upwards in an unstoppable smirk.
Davvey laughed nervously, looking over his shoulder and waved people off as if I was joking. “Don’t be silly, Maddox,” he said in a humouring tone. “Those gates have been shut for twenty years now. No one can sail through the Mists now.”
“I know,” I said flippantly, taking a huge mouthful of hot, salty, delicious stew. Beyond the Damned Gates were the Mists: a thick, seemingly endless, rolling fog that countless ships and sailors became lost in and never returned. My father was one of the few who had made it back, recording all he had seen in his diaries.
“And how do you think you’re going to get through?” he said calmly. “No one will sail you there and it’s too dangerous on a dingy.” He paused, his eyes searching my face for any sign that I was joking and found none. “You’ve just got back…”
I shifted awkwardly, still feeling the pinprick of condemning eyes on my skin.
“Seven years I haven’t seen you, Maddox,” Davvey said, his voice lower, almost pleading. “Don’t go and do something foolish like this. Leave the Gates be.”
I leaned forwards, annoyed. “If I had been born the son of Ezra Black and not daughter, there would be a hundred men who would trust my cause.” I sat back abruptly, stung by bitterness.
Davvey raised an eyebrow. “If it’s any consolation, I’m glad you’re not a man.” He smiled slightly, seeing the heat return to my cheeks. “In all seriousness, Maddox, I don’t know a man alive who would want to risk their ship on that voyage. I certainly wouldn’t take you on my ship.”
I looked up. “You have a ship?”
But Davvey was pointing at me in warning, his head cocked to the side and his mouth quirked into a good natured half smile. “You’re not taking a step on it.”
I shrugged. “Interesting…”
I said my farewells to Davvey, my intentions of retrieving my father’s journals unsettling him. He worried for me, I knew, but there was no need for it. I hadn’t seen him for seven years. I wasn’t the same person I was back then. He had no right to attempt to stop me. No-one did.
I slept like the dead, the waves crashing outside a soothing balm to my overworked mind. It had been days since I had last leapt in the ocean and my skin was itching to be back in the water. The next morning, sure enough, I rose at the crack of dawn to run to the shore, moving away from the port and climbing down to the rarely used parts of the beach.
The thunderous foam churned up the sand beneath, turning the clear blues, blacks and greens into a cloudy haze of unknown depths. I dove straight into the ocean’s belly, my clothes cast off and forgotten as I allowed my body to be tossed and turned through the waters, the decay of Greyport dashed away from me as each wave crashed over my head. I delighted in it, exalted and invigorated, never out of breath, my legs never straining or tiring. The itch that had begun in my soul was suddenly gone, the uneasiness and agitation eaten away by the sea’s many foaming mouths.
I broke my fast in my room at the Appleby Inn, eating eggs, bread and ham before the fire as the heat dried my hair into a mass of black waves along my back.
I stared into the embers, hearing the markets, already rumbling with exchanged goods and haggling townsfolk, with an uneasy heart. My cousin could not refuse me my father’s journals. My father had always intended for them to be passed to me, but with the lack of a will, my father’s intention didn’t hold up for much. I knew they were mine by right. But a niggling voice in the back of my head pointed out that everything had been mine by right- my cousin had still taken it all.
I was now relying on his conscience.
I glowered into the flames, wiping up the remaining egg yolk with the last bit of bread. I would have them one way or another.
“This sounds like invaluable information,” Jenna had told me one night when we settled on board the Crew Star. She huddled her knees to her chest, a half-eaten apple suddenly forgotten in one hand. “With that knowledge you could rule the Damned Waters! I’ve never been through the Mists before…”
I shook my head, taking a huge bite out of my own apple. “I don’t want to rule them,” I said. “I just want to get through them.”
“But aren’t you curious?” Jenna pushed on, puzzlement covering her freckled face. “Don’t you want to know what’s out there? Beyond the Mists?”
I laughed and then fixed her with a serious look. “I know what’s out there.”
The fire snapped and dragged my attention back to the present. Jenna wasn’t from Greyport, but all lands west of the Mists had their own theories and history books of what was past there.
Greyport were fearful of it. We were the nearest dwelling to the Mists. When my father had been alive, business had thrived with his assistance on the merchant ships that passed through on his expeditions. But when my mother passed, the seas turned on us, barring our way beyond. The Lost Lands. Places we had forgotten about. Places after hundreds of years we had forgotten how to reach.
Angry at myself for letting time pass by, I stood and dressed. I had done well in my ventures with the Shipmasters. The pay was poor- but anything was better than selling fish by the wayside. It had taken a while to settle in, the young men on board were distrustful of women, but eager enough to be open to change.
I’ll never understand my luck that Jenna was there that day in the market. Fate would finally pick me up and take me out of that town.
“What made you ask me?” I had questioned on the long trek to the Mainlands.
“I saw a kindred spirit in you,” she said, her green eyes flashing. “I knew by looking at you that you craved the ocean as much as me.”
I learned later that her servant had decided to elope with a lover that morning and she needed someone to pose as a chaperone. I didn’t mind. Jenna was a woman born from money and influence. Her doting father paid and bribed her way through the Shipmasters to be taught as equally as her brother. It wasn’t difficult being allowed to work on board once the way had been paved for Jenna. At first I was just an extra body, a hindrance to the crew- an extra mouth to feed. But once they saw my nets and traps were always full, they wanted to see what else I was capable of.
It took two weeks at sea of full bellies before I was finally accepted.
A man had come into my cabin and thrown a pair of breeches at me. “There you are,” he said, not looking too pleased. “Put these on and get to work. Welcome to the crew.”
I laughed to myself as I pulled on my leather jerkin. “Welcome indeed…” I breathed, buttoning it up tightly around my waist and chest. It had been an incredible seven years at sea, discovering the Western lands. The lads on board had made it difficult at first, but one week of empty nets soon shut them up. It soon became apparent that between Jenna and me, we were a stronger ship.
More women joined our crew and it was the beginning of something amazing. Our ship was an oddity, but it was the best seven years of my life.
“Don’t go,” Jenna had begged me. I remembered her hair had grown to her waist, shimmering a pale bronze in the sunlight, her skin gold from years on deck. “You can come along my ship with me- my father is having it built- it’ll be a marvel-”
I smiled at her, grasping her hand tight in my tanned fingers. “I need a ship of my own, Jen,” I said, squeezing tight.
“My father can-”
I shook my head, cutting off her words. “I know he could.” I stepped away, hoisting my bag higher on my back. “But I need to do this myself.”
She stood there, her lip pouting with her hands on her hips. “Fine. But if anyone in that town treats you bad, I’ll burn it to the ground!”
I prayed she was doing well. Her fiery spirit would see her thriving across the seas. She would one day make Captain, have her own ship and be glorious in her own right.
I needed to do the same. Pulling on my black leather breeches and my knee high boots, I tightened my belt around my waist. I left my arms bare. On board the Crew Star, we didn’t believe in being hot on board. We worked in what clothes were comfortable beneath the raging sun, sometimes just wearing a long shirt and cut off breeches or even in our small things. Probably not decent as a woman, but after years working together, the lads on board knew well enough that we were off limits.
Not that they hadn’t tried in the beginning.
Several broken noses later (not ours) the thought of courting was thrown overboard.
I stared at my reflection in the aged mirror before me and smiled bitterly. The people at church would splutter at the sight of me. The leather clung to the curves that I had been taught to be ashamed of. Tall and slender, my body had been sculpted from countless hours in the ocean and labouring on deck. I had become a woman out at sea, I had grown unchained, unrestricted and free.
Suppressing a sigh, I quickly gathered my hair and started to plait it into a long braid down my back, focusing on the eyes my father had told me countless times were so much like my mother’s. I looked away quickly, remembering his despair when she had died.
Attaching my purse on my belt, I settled it at my hip beneath my jerkin and then reached out for my dirk. It was a long blade that curved into a wicked fang. I fastened it on my other hip with a sadistic grin.
I walked out of the inn, my presence rewarded by stares. The market was busy, people pausing from their haggling to gawk at the foreigner that had appeared on their lands twenty seven years ago. But I was not my mother.
“Is that Madison?” I heard voices mutter as I passed. I fixed them with a stare as I passed through, enjoying seeing their faces pale as realisation hit.
“That’s not Madison,” I heard one woman say. “That’s Maddox.”
My father’s house was on the outskirts of the busy town, a tall building set apart from the others with a rare small plot of land that surrounded it. Flowers that had once grown around the steady white washed walls had withered and died, practical herb gardens and vegetable patches now planted around the building. My mother had been an expert at herb lore, knowing of all the plants that grew near water. The ones further inland were a mystery to her, but I had never thought it strange, her lack of knowledge. She focused her efforts on catching the fruits of the sea, most of our meals consisted of eating mussels or lobster.
My father didn’t seem to mind that she wasn’t a traditional housewife. We were never sick, aided by her seaborn medicines and kelp concoctions. We never stayed in either one of their houses long enough to make a true mess of things, her home in the Half Woods hewn out of rock in the ground decorated with countless seashells we had collected together.
I stood outside my father’s house, listening to the sound of a bleating goat around the back. The thatched roof was the only thing that looked maintained on the building, its walls in dire need of repair. My nails reached out and picked at a patch of mould, the green disintegrating beneath my fingers in damp mulch. My nose wrinkled, smelling rot. Seven years had not been kind to my childhood home. The ground squelched beneath my boots, from rain the night before drenching everything into a sodden muddy mess.
The goat stared at me incredulously, as if disbelieving I had the gall to trespass. He bleated at me again before skipping away nervously. It was tethered to a post near a roughly built shelter. There was no food or water available in sight for the animal, its hooves stuck in a wide patch of mud.
Shushing it, I continued my pacing behind the building and saw more vegetable patches. I almost nodded in approval. At least they wouldn’t starve through the winter. Wooden toys were scattered near the back door and I let out a long drawn breath, wondering how many they had.
Other buildings overlooked my cousin’s courtyard, but not too closely that they would be in obvious earshot. They too looked in need of a stonemason. I shook my head. The closing of The Damned Gates had affected everybody. How long were they going to go on like this?
Seeing a well, I filled a bucket and took it back to the thirsty animal. It made a high pitched screech before shovelling its head into the water, all of its reservations towards me vanished. I raised an eyebrow and turned back to the door.
I was about to reach for the handle when it suddenly swung open. A man hovered over the threshold, his feet meeting the ground in a hard thump as he caught sight of me. His skin had a tinge of mottled green, as if he had been recently seasick, dark circles bruised his eyes from sleep deprivation. His mouth opened and closed as his voice stopped working, his veins standing up on his neck and arms in a sinewy labyrinth of dark lines. His dark eyes flittered frantically over my appearance.
“Maddox?” he gasped.
He was about as incredulous as the goat.
“Hello, cousin,” I said, breezing past him and into his house. The kitchen was dimly lit and empty, crumbs of a long forgotten meal on a table by a window. My eyes trailed up to a few dead daisies lying in a small glass, devoid of water. A chair was overturned on the floor and I righted it without thinking. Herbs hung to dry from the ceiling, the fresh smell of lavender lightly hovering in the air. I breathed it in and turned back to my spluttering cousin, his shoulder length curly hair now streaked with grey. I frowned at it.
“Maddox? What are you doing here?” He came back into the house and shut the door hurriedly behind him, making the dark room darker.
The tension from him was obvious. His shoulders were shaking and his eyes were wide, his hands clenching and unclenching. I noted that his cloak had been tossed onto another chair, as if he had just arrived from somewhere.
“I’m here for my father’s journals,” I said bluntly.
He flinched and closed his eyes briefly, as if pained. “Maddox, not now.” He picked up his cloak. “I can’t talk about this now.”
I stared at him confused at his behaviour. He wasn’t shouting at me, raving or anything. He appeared a broken man. Reaching out, I pulled his cloak from him. “Marcus,” I said firmly. “I’ve come here for my father’s belongings. I’m not going anywhere without them.”
His eyes darted around the room as if it held strangers and then they settled on the knife at my side. He blinked then, as if seeing me for the very first time. “Maddox…” he breathed, taking a step back. “You shouldn’t be here. Now’s not a good time…”
“I’m not here to make a fuss.” I snatched the rest of his cloak away and slammed it on the table, unsettling the dust that had lay dormant. My nose twitching, I put my hands on my hips. “I’ve travelled a long way, Marcus,” I said, my voice low. “You have everything of my father’s- I just want his journals.” I put my hands up, palms outwards as a sign of peace. Despite this being my childhood home, I didn’t want to stay here for long. Marcus hadn’t been a bad man, but the God-fearing aspect of him had made my life living with his family miserable.
He sighed, looking very tired, his knotted fingers rubbing his lined forehead as if to push away a pain. “How long have you been in Greyport?” he asked quietly, not meeting my eyes.
I blinked in surprise. “I arrived last night.”
He swallowed and nodded slowly. “You shouldn’t be here, cousin” he said again, enraging me. “I don’t know where your father’s journals are.”
My jaw clamped down hard, my teeth gritting together painfully. He had never been a good liar. I took a step forward. “Then maybe I should just have a look around?”
He made a small sound as I swung backwards and stormed into the next room, shelves of my father’s books nowhere in sight, replaced by children’s paintings and vases of dead flowers. I entered their living quarters and froze, the discarded and torn up furniture lying in a sad debris of a broken family home. A child’s doll lay in the centre, its arm torn from its torso, woollen guts spilling from within. I swallowed and turned to see Marcus standing in the doorframe, a distraught shadow in his eyes.
“Marcus,” I said slowly, my throat suddenly dry. “What’s going on? Where is your wife?”
He opened his mouth as if to speak, the lump in his throat stopping him. He swallowed, the whites of his eyes becoming red as tears threatened to fall.
“Isabelle...” He took another breath, as if disbelieving his own words. “Isabelle and the children are gone.”
“I don’t know.”
His fist suddenly hit a wall, making me jump, soft flakes of plaster falling to the floor. “They took them!”
My eyes widened, not understanding. “What?” I moved towards him but he held a hand up. “Who took your children?”
He stared at the wall for a long time, tears falling freely now, his face unmoving as he finally locked eyes with mine. “Some business… went wrong…”
A cold sensation hit my skin, as if someone had suddenly exposed me to a windless winter chill. I looked around my surroundings, seeing the devastation, the struggle evident in the broken pots.
“What sort of business? I asked slowly.
Marcus looked bitterly to the ceiling, grasping the doorframe. “It’s not your affair, cousin,” he almost snarled. “Now leave….”
Confusion marred my thinking. I reached out and pulled him to face me, hating when he flinched at my touch. “Where are your children?”
He choked and shook his head, his hands reaching up to cover his face. “I don’t know,” he sobbed. “I came back to this… I made some dealing… I was supposed to deliver something to him but I couldn’t get it. He says he’ll keep my children until I deliver…” He hung his head in his hands and started to shake. His eyes slowly rose then, as if he had just realised something. “But you’re here…” he said numbly. “You can-” He swallowed, standing up abruptly. “Maddox- I lied. I know where your father’s journals are- aye, you can scowl all you want at me- I’m not ashamed. These are hard times and I never thought you’d be back. Sit down there, and I’ll explain.”
Reluctantly, with a growl on my lips, I sat down, ready for his explanation. “Go on.”
“Your father sent the journals to the White Isles before he died. There was a letter for you… saying you could have them when you came of age. I tried to get them back, but the monks…” His angry sobbing came harder now, his back shaking with the weight of his sorrow. “The monks said my blood didn’t match the line. I had no right to claim the journals as my own. I am powerless- I have nothing to give to them! My children will die!”
My teeth were gritted. “You tried to sell my father’s diaries,” I determined. “So that’s why people have been thinking I’ve been dead all this time. You let that rumour pass.”
He stammered and shook his head. “Didn’t spread it, I didn’t,” he insisted. “I just didn’t dissuade it…”
I glared at him. If Marcus wasn’t a blood relative of my father, that either meant that my aunt was an adulterer, or my grandmother was. Which only left one option.
I was the only living relative of my father.
I always knew my father had been taken on excursions because of his knowledge of the seas. He could direct anyone to the destination they wanted to go. That someone would want the journals for themselves had never occurred to me.
Marcus stared at me, his face a cascade of stormy emotions. “Maybe… maybe you could get the journals…” His eyes snapped to mine, a feverish glow to them. A shaking finger rose in the air, pointed with the power of an idea. “You could give them to the people who have my family….”
I stared at him, my arms folded across my chest. He was feverish, mumbling to himself as he shifted through papers on his table. “I can’t give you the journals, Marcus.”
He lifted his shaking hands covered in grime and dust. Dust rose and fell as he moved towards me. “Please… he says he knows where he can get my children… my wife… No, cousin,” he rasped. “You could save them- they won’t allow me the books- but you…” He jumped back, his arms open wide. “You can have your father’s house back- it’ll be yours- all yours-”
I looked around in discomfort as he paced around the room, imaginings of salvation rising up. No desire for my old home materialised, no sensations of hope or jubilation. Just a dead feeling of disappointment and dread.
“You need to go to the Earl and tell him of this,” I said calmly. “You need to warn him of these men. What if they come back?”
Marcus paused in his movements in a bone crunching jerk. “The Earl? Bah!” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “No help will come from him- he’s too worried about his debt collectors than his people. I need my family, Maddox- I need them safe.”
My head was whirling. I moved out of the chaos of their living quarters and back into the kitchen, sitting down at the table. Marcus was there in an instant, an overeager dog now he had been thrown a scrap of hope.
“There’s things in those diaries you father wrote about,” Marcus said excitedly, his fingers dancing in the air. He moved closer to me, as if afraid someone would hear. It was then I could smell the ale on his breath. At the last moment he appeared as though he changed his mind on what he was going to say. “You’ve been without them a long time, Maddox. No one’s seen them for years. They probably won’t even be useful anymore. Leave them be- just help me… You owe me that.”
“Owe you?” I was incredulous as I watched spite twist his face.
“Time has been good to you I see,” he said, his eyes taking in my leather boots and my thick cloak. “Whilst I have been rotting here the past seven years.”
“You threw me out!” I protested.
“You disobeyed!” he face, his face shaking suddenly as the blood rushed to his head. “You were an untameable beast of a girl that I was left to look after! You think it was easy to bear the name Black with you as a burden? You shamed this house with your antics late at night!”
My breath caught in anger, remembering his own. I had caught Marcus staring at me from my bedroom door at night when he thought I was asleep. His stare had made my skin creep, his eyes lingering on my legs that were twisted in my covers. I had taken to locking my door at night after that and when the lock had been removed, I would sleep on the beach or in front of the fire at Davvey’s house. His mother never caught me, although I found it hard to believe that she didn’t know what was happening. Davvey would wake me up and shoo me out with a pastry in hand at dawn so I could avoid getting into trouble.
My teeth clenched, my fingertips growing cold. His complaints towards me was nothing I hadn’t heard before. The resentment I had felt from him growing up was starkly visible in my cousin’s blood shot eyes.
“You owe me those journals,” Marcus seethed, spit dancing on his lips. “You owe me that!”
In that moment, I wanted to haul Marcus up off his feet and slam his head against the wall. I stood from the table and a step forward, no longer the young girl he could bully.
“And how, may I ask, did this person who you claim has stolen your children, learn of my father’s journals?”
My cousin shook his head, his anger washing away into cowardice. “That doesn’t matter-”
“It does matter,” I growled. “You started blabbing didn’t you?” I took a step forward until his back was against the edge of the table. He was a few inches taller than me, but he was skinny and the booze had made him weak. I could see it now in his skin, his eyes- his erratic movements.
“I beg of you,” he wailed, as if he hadn’t just been condemning me, falling to his knees. “Please come with me to The White Isles- help me get them back. Help me save my family. He just wants the map-”
I stared down at him, down at the man who I owed years of grey days. Grinding my foot into the dirt on the floor, I put my hands on my hips. “Who have you been talking to?”
Marcus swallowed, his face shaking. He licked his flaking lips. “They call him The Grim…” He shook his head, falling to his haunches. “He said he would make me rich…”
There was more, I knew it. More he wasn’t telling me. Anger boiled in my belly of my hand being forced. “This man says in exchange for the journals, he’ll give your children back,” I stated just so I had it clear.
His eyes darting, my cousin nodded.
A sound of disgust left my throat as I left Marcus to wallow over his broken home. There was nothing I could do- nothing except prepare for the boat ride over to The White Isles. It was a long journey in a tiny sloop- but that was all Marcus had. His excitement when I had finally agreed to it was uncomfortable. He had fallen to the floor and attempted to kiss my hands. I wanted none of it.
“There are three journals, Marcus. If the map he wants is in one of them, he can have it,” I said, pointing at him. “But the rest is mine.”
Marcus thought on this and nodded. “I will speak to him,” he said enthusiastically. His eyes fell at the coin purse at my side.
Allowing a shaky breath to exit my lungs, I pulled out a handful of coins and left them on the table, the screech of wood loud in my ears as my cousin darted for them.
I returned to the inn with a foul mood flaring. People darted out of my way as if I was a ghost, afraid to touch me. I sat by the fire, brooding as I ordered a meat pie and ale. I had focused so much energy on having those Damned Gates reopened, and now felt exhausted after speaking to Marcus. I had been excited to finally have the journals in my hands. It had never occurred to me that they had been sent away. Why? Why not entrust them to me?
I thought more on this, memories of my father writing into the late hours of the night swirling before my eyes, until the very people that surrounded me became his shelves of books, his papers and discarded drawings.
“You see, Maddox,” he told me, holding up a compass in his hand. “It’s important to get every single detail right when it comes to the oceans. They deserve respect and accuracy.”
I nodded, sleep blurring my eyes until he lifted me on his lap, and we laughed at the funny sea creatures he had drawn.
“That one looks silly!”
“And so it is, my sweet Maddie,” my father said, squeezing me as we poured over the thick parchment. “But it is a very grumpy bad tempered creature too. Best to stay away from these at all costs.” He lifted his hand and waved his digits, the top of his left pinkie missing. “They bite!”
I clapped my hands over my mouth as my father laughed and laughed.
The smell of pie brought me back to the present, and I blinked through tears that I hadn’t realised had sprouted. Shaking my head, I tucked into my meal, each bite improving my mood. The food here really was good, and I made a mental note to treat Davvey to a pie here sometime.
The Damned Gates had been shut ever since the last voyage- the last voyage my father had been on. He had been on board to guide the men through the waters, like he had a thousand times before. So why had he failed? Why hadn’t his methods worked this time? Why had the Damned Seas turned against him? It was my dream to retrieve his journals and earn safe passage through the gates, to bring back the glory to Greyport- to finally be accepted-
My stomach suddenly went hollow, and I laid down my knife and fork. I hadn’t realised until now that was what I really wanted. My eyes focused hard on the scratched wooden table I was leaning on, willing it to fracture into tiny splinters. This town was responsible for making a large portion of my life miserable. Why would I ever want to return to this place?
Because my father loved it here.
Pushing away my plate, I went back to my room, taking a bottle of rum with me from the bar. The barkeep raised an eyebrow but I flipped him a coin to shut him up.
“No more questions, Maddox,” I told myself, climbing the stairs.
The next morning came with a thick head and a wave of nausea. It refused to abate until I had plunged my sweating body into the waves, not wanting to come back up for air. I didn’t want to face Marcus. My feet treaded water as I gazed up at Greyport before me, the docks and the ships gently rocking with the morning tide. It had once been a beautiful place, my father had insisted. He said that flags had flown from the tops of buildings in every colour imaginable, spinning and turning in the breeze. All I saw was a town made of slate, built endlessly towards the sky in one gravity defying lump of stone.
I watched the docks until a sound made me turn in the water. A tiny boat was coming in Greyport’s direction. I sank lower in the water so only my eyes and the top of my head were exposed. My hair fanned around me like seaweed and I willed myself to be unseen. The boat passed me silently, its wood creaking and groaning in relief, those on board hidden by the gentle mist rolling on the top of the ocean. The boat looked old- ancient even. I didn’t recognise it, or even the craftsmanship that had gone into the specimen.
Jenna and I had sailed on many ships, and being a resident of Greyport, I expected to have seen nearly every single ship that had been created turn up here at some point.
This looked like no boat from the Mainlands. I narrowed my eyes and decided enough was enough. Slowly and silently, I sank beneath the water and swam under the soft waves until I was sure I was an unforgettable roll of the ocean. My clothes were bundled in a small overhanging of rock and I ran to them naked, the stones rolling beneath the pads of my feet.
Swearing when I stood on one too sharp, I wrapped myself in a blanket and rubbed my skin until it became sore. I had been late in getting up this morning.
“That’s what rum will do to you,” I growled to myself. I sat down on a rock and pulled out the apple and oatcakes I had packed myself this morning. Food always seemed to improve my thoughts, and my mind had been travelling dark places of late. I sat eating, thoughtfully looking over the ocean towards the direction of the Half Woods. I had grown up in both places, brought up by the knowledge of my mother and father, and still I could not determine which direction I considered home the most.
I stared down at the skinny apple core and tossed it towards the tide. For a time, I considered working with the Shipmasters to be home. But one ship was never a haven for long, and my quarters were always shared. Pulling on a loose fitting dress and shawl, I started to run up the beach and clambered up the rocks near an ancient set of stairs towards the town that was no longer used.
Slime covered the stone marred by erosion as I slipped and slid my way up them, now understanding why fisherman had chosen new paths. My feet were left bare, but I didn’t care- no one would blink twice at the sight of them. Tossing the shawl around my shoulders and head, I could easily be mistaken for any townswoman.
The market was bustling, and beneath my scarf I found myself smiling. This was the town my father had loved. Although it was now dramatically lacking the goods that had once been imported, we were fine merchants of leather and wool. The scent of hot meat permeated the air in a thick fog that I happily walked through, wishing that I had brought my purse with me. Slabs of cheese were waved at passing townsfolk by an old woman, her gnarly fingers twisted from years of craft. Her granddaughter stood next to her, offering an array of crusty bread of all sizes, covered in poppy seeds.
My mouth watering and my stomach now ravenous, I hurried on, determined to have a second breakfast. I twisted my way through the crowds, my head lowering as the throng of people became thicker. I pushed through them, a poor peasant girl, nothing to them. Good. I was invisible.
An elbow suddenly pierced my ribs and I yelped. The passer-by flicked me a disinterested glance before continuing to move on. Staring after them, I clenched my fists and stalked on, muttering to myself.
“Is that Maddox Black?”
I turned at the sound of my name and hurriedly pulled up the shawl over my long damp hair. The church loomed to my left, the scent of incense pouring over into the streets. I wrinkled my nose as the smell invaded my senses. I paused outside of the door, feeling eyes prick my back. A curse damp on my lips, I walked in.
The key to the Damned Gates rose above the altar, high and glorious in its promise to protect Greyport from what lay beyond the Mists. I sneered at the spectacle that had been made of it. The church was empty, save from a couple of monks who prayed on their knees to their holy God. I stepped towards the key, its simple design promising to unlock a whole channel of possibilities. Forbidden for anyone to touch. We feared the Mists- that much was certain. The whole Eastern world was a mystery, except from those old enough to remember the stories their fathers had told them. There were islands just within the Mists they had reached - but beyond… Who knew?
My father would.
Voices rose, and I heard my mother’s name hissed under people’s breath like a filthy curse. Shoulders tensing beneath the monks gaze, I turned away from the hateful and unreachable key and left the church, wincing when they made their signs of protection across their chests.
I had nearly forgotten what it had been like to be hated for no reason- almost convinced myself that things would be different. Annoyed, I moved away from the throng of market people and down an alleyway, skinny street urchins scuttling away after spinning marbles on the floor. I had nothing to give them and ignored their opportunistic bids for money.
Continuing to walk down the starved, forgotten streets of Greyport, I wound my way away from the market until the inn was across the street. I hesitated before I stepped into the light, waiting for people to pass first. My heart beating fast, my feet padded over the filthy stone until I was inside the warmth and safety of the inn.
I don’t know why I had been so desperate to leave the streets when my name was raised. Everyone would know eventually. Walking straight up to my room, I threw the shawl into the centre, my hair a wild tangle of black. Sitting down angrily by a fire the maid had lit, I grabbed a comb and started to rake through my locks, dismissing the sharp pain when I pulled too hard.
I stepped out of my dress and kicked it away, preferring to sit naked as I thought of my future.
My money situation wasn’t great, but I had been hoping to find a benefactor to fund my venture. Someone brave enough to trust the name Black again. The journals were going to help me accomplish this.
My hand paused, the heat from the fire relaxing my tired muscles. The journals were my birth right. No one but me had the right to them. My jaw tightened and I placed down the comb, content with my untangled hair.
I reminded myself that Marcus had said the Grim only wanted a map. Just a map.