It was the fifteenth day of our voyage that Second Mate Matiss sighted land where no land should be. The weather had turned, the clouds were seething, and all of us were prepared for a difficult time of it until the storm passed us by. The waters we were sailing were known for their sudden, unpredictable rages, so none of us were green enough to assume it’d be plain sailing all the way back home. All the same, it had looked to be clear and pleasant when we rose from our bunks that morning, so it was disappointing to see our luck hadn’t lasted.
Navigator Robson had always been an extremely reliable man to have on board, and we’d yet to see the day he’d guided us off course. Some of the lads used to joke about him having magic in his veins, scrying our journey from port to port and claiming it was all down to his solid training and clear head. I couldn’t comment either way, myself, save that I trusted Robson with all the lives on the Windhammer and so did the Captain.
Which was why it was so surprising that Matiss reported what he did. He’d been scouring the sky to the north of us for a trace of blue with his spyglass when he made out what he was adamant was a line of dark cliffs not ten miles away. I wrested the glass from him to confirm what he was seeing and though it took me a little while to make them out myself, I can only report that I saw a distant shadow above the angry rolling of the sea.
“What in the world?” I murmured to myself, steadying the glass to try and get a clearer image of what exactly I was looking at, but the Windhammer crested a sudden wave and I had to grab onto the railing to save myself from tumbling to the deck. When I next lifted the glass to my eye, all I saw was the sea.
“That was land, sure as anything,” Matiss insisted. I kept my face deadpan. Sure, we’d both seen something, there was no denying that, but land, out here? Impossible. These were open waters on any map, and it wasn’t like this was the first time we’d made the journey.
“It couldn’t be land,” I assured him. “There just isn’t any.”
“Then what?” he asked me, genuine confusion on his face.
“Perhaps we imagined it,” I suggested, though I didn’t believe that myself for one second.
Before we could comment further on what we’d seen, the sky erupted with a tumultuous crashing, cold white lightning forking through the air like the trident of a sea god. Instinctively we ducked, and a burst of wind whipped my hat from my head and cast it over the side. I swore, belatedly clutching my balding scalp, and Matiss chuckled – I silenced him with a stony glare.
“It’s getting heavier!” a voice cried from behind us, and I turned, standing to attention as the Captain approached.
“It is indeed sir,” I agreed. “Were we anywhere near shelter, I’d suggest dropping anchor and waiting it out, but…” I gestured vaguely at the uninterrupted waters.
“What about what we saw?” Matiss couldn’t stop himself from saying, and I grimaced as the Captain raised an eyebrow at the lad.
“What you saw?” the old, dark-skinned sailor asked.
“Land, sir. About ten miles to the north-”
“We’re not certain it was land,” I cut in quickly. “We both saw… something, but we were mistaken, I’m sure.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the Captain said, and held out a hand for the spyglass, which I gave him.
Another wave rocked the ship, spray licking up over the side and mingling with the rain. Matiss and I had to steady ourselves again, but the Captain seemed unfazed by the lurching of the deck.
“Anything?” I asked after a long moment.
The Captain lowered the spyglass and looked at me, and those deep, dark eyes held a fear I hadn’t seen in the old man in all the years I’d sailed under him.
“Set a course north,” he commanded.
“Sir?” I blinked, thrown by the order.
“You heard me. North,” and the Captain strode away.
The decision perplexed me, for a number of reasons – not least that the cliffs we’d thought we’d seen by no means guaranteed any shelter at all from the storm. If anything, we were just as likely to dash ourselves to pieces on their rocks – assuming, of course, that there was anything there at all.
But I’m not a man to question orders. No one survives at sea very long by doing that. The Captain had our confidence, and he’d earned that over years of firm, sensible leadership. If he wanted us to head north, then north we’d go.
It was slow going, the howling wind throwing us from port to starboard, over and over as we tacked our way towards whatever we’d seen. It was about an hour before I spotted it again, larger now, looming out of the storm. Definitely cliffs and, as far as I could tell, some kind of structure visible above them. That suggested civilization. Perhaps the Captain’s decision wasn’t as unwise as I’d thought.
“I simply don’t understand it,” Navigator Robson was saying a little while later, as I ducked my head below decks where he and the Captain stood over a table covered in papers. “This landmass isn’t on any of the charts. We should be in open waters. It’s possible the storm’s blown us off course, but even taking that scenario to its absolute extreme, there’s no way we could be seeing what we’re seeing. A small island, I could just about believe, but cliffs of this scale? Utterly impossible.”
The Captain was silent, staring grimly at the circle of pins Robson had driven into the map to mark our possible locations.
“We’re nearing land, sir,” I said, and he looked up suddenly, startled by my presence. “Looks like there’s some kind of jetty. We might be able to moor.”
The Captain nodded, registering none of the surprise the rest of the lads had shown when we first spotted the wooden outcrop at the base of the cliff. “Bring us in,” he told me, and I nodded, wondering what he wasn’t telling us.
We had to come around twice before we managed to lash our ropes to the bollards along the edge of the little jetty. We were the only ship moored there, and though the storm had worsened still, and the jetty was moving almost as much as the Windhammer, it felt good to be lashed to something relatively secure. Still, the wind and rain were bitterly cold, and the icy air seeped through the planks of the deck and had us shivering where we crouched in the hold, hidden from the raging weather.
“I say we ought to try that house up there,” one of the lads said, and there was a general nodding of agreement. Someone had carved a set of steps into the cliffside leading all the way from the jetty to the structure perched like a great black crow on the top. “Bet they’ve got a nice warm fire inside.”
I was half-inclined to agree, but something about that house up there didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it was the uncharted nature of this place, or the fact that it had appeared out of nowhere and vanished when I’d looked again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow we were unwelcome here. It wasn’t my call, though. The Captain decided for us.
“I’m taking a small party up to the house,” the old sailor declared, stomping down the steps into the hold. “Saul, Matiss, I want you with me. The rest of you can wait here until we send for you.”
I heard a few grumbles of dissent at that, but none of the lads was brave enough to speak up against the Captain’s orders. We might have been a rowdy bunch, but we were well trained, priding ourselves on our discipline in the face of adversity.
And so it was that the three of us, wrapped in cloaks and skins to protect us from the storm, found ourselves climbing step after step, up that strange dark cliff towards the house waiting for us on top. The stones that formed the steps were strangely regular, carved by some precise technique into smooth rectangles, each just slightly higher than a man could comfortably stride. None of us spoke on the way up, our faces buried in our cloaks, and the wind too loud for us to have heard each other anyway.
It took us a quarter of an hour to reach the top. Strangely enough, the house was smaller than it had looked from the bottom, with only a single floor and two shuttered windows. A thin coil of smoke trickled from a chimney at the corner of its thatched roof before vanishing in the wind, suggesting warmth, if nothing else, waited inside.
The Captain rapped on the wooden door, and we waited. No one answered it for what felt like an age, and I was about to suggest we try again when it swung open without warning. A young girl stood there in a simple white dress, her hair tied up in pigtails and her feet bare.
The Captain looked at her without speaking, and Matiss and I hurried to his side, eager to be in out of the cold.
“We’re sailors, moored at your jetty,” I started to explain. “We hoped we might come in out of this wretched weather.” The girl looked at me curiously, but didn’t move or answer until an elderly voice called from inside. “Let them in, Jess!”
The girl hurried away into the dark of the house, and we gratefully followed, hit by a wall of warmth as we stepped through the doorway. I pulled it shut behind us, anxious not to let the heat out.
The inside of the house was small but cosy, a table set for two on one side, a rug on the floor, a fire crackling in a corner and seated beside it, an old woman wrapped in blankets in a deep wooden rocking chair.
“Come in, come in!” she called to us. “Come warm yourselves by the fire.”
Internally, I was slightly surprised at her hospitality, considering we were total strangers and that this woman and the girl I assumed was her granddaughter were totally defenceless.
We hurried forward, palms outstretched to the warm, babbling incoherent thanks and trying not to drip all over her rug. The old woman watched us, a thin smile of mirth on her face. She glanced at the Captain.
“It’s been too long, Melcur,” she said, and grinned, revealing several missing teeth.
I was stunned.
“You know each other?”
“Of course,” the old woman crooned, but her eyes didn’t leave the Captain, who stood motionless behind where Matiss and me knelt. “We’re old friends, of a sort.”
“But that means…” Matiss said, his face confused and a little hurt. “You knew this place was here?”
“I did,” the Captain acknowledged. “I apologize for misleading you.”
“But why?” I asked, uncomprehending.
“Because I asked him to,” the old woman said, waving a hand dismissively. “Are you ready to repay your debt, Melcur?”
After a pause, the old sailor I knew as the Captain nodded, his face unreadable.
“What debt?” I started to ask, getting to my feet, but the Captain raised a finger to his lips and, loyalty ingrained beneath my skin, I complied. I heard a padding of bare feet, and the little girl who’d answered the door stood at the Captain’s side, gently taking his hand.
“See to it, Jess,” the old woman said, and the girl led my Captain across the room to a door which I’d assumed had led to where she and her grandmother slept. She opened it, and they stepped through, the door closing behind them. I made to follow, but the old woman gripped my arm – not hard, but with enough deliberate strength to stop me.
“Let them go,” she implored me.
“Only if you tell us what’s going on,” Matiss insisted, standing next to me.
“But of course,” the old woman nodded and smiled. “Your Captain, Melcur, has been here before.”
I’d gathered as much, but let her continue.
“A decade ago to this day, he came here seeking shelter from a storm not unlike this one. A storm which, had I allowed events to take their course, would have taken his life.”
That was a strange turn of phrase, and I opened my mouth to comment on it, but the old woman talked right over me.
“I offered him an alternative. Ten years to sail his seas and continue to live his life. Ten years to earn the money to settle his wife and daughter in relative comfort. Then, he would return, and the storm would take its due.”
“Witchcraft,” Matiss breathed, anger and fear lacing his voice in equal measure. My hand dropped to my belt, closing on the hilt of my sword.
The old woman laughed.
“Call it what you will. I saved your Captain’s life, and now he has repaid the debt.”
“He’s not paying you anything,” I growled, and marched over to the door the girl had led him through. I grabbed the handle and pulled it open, only to be knocked backwards by a sheet of rain. The door led straight outside, a few paces from the edge of the cliff. But… there had been another room. I’d glimpsed it through the door when the girl had opened it. Otherwise, we’d surely have heard the rain, or felt the draught. The storm was as loud as it ever had been.
Of the girl and the Captain, there was no sign.
I let the door close and turned back to the woman, my sword in my hand. “Where are they? What have you done with him, witch?”
The old woman shook her head sadly. “I have done nothing. The storm has taken what it was owed.”
“You’ve killed him!”
“I gave him life,” the woman hissed, the lines of her face deepening as she leaned forward in her chair. Matiss drew his own sword, and the two of us levelled them at her throat. “I would offer you both the same.”
She turned sharply to Matiss, ignoring the sharpened steel hovering inches from her chin.
“You. Matiss. How would you like to see Bec again, hmm? She’s waiting for you, back home. I can give you ten years with her.”
Matiss stiffened at the mention of his betrothed’s name. The fact that she knew it at all stank of witchcraft to both of us.
“I am deaf to your lies, witch,” Matiss said through gritted teeth. “Your magic cannot tempt me.”
“And you, Saul,” she said harshly to me, her eyes meeting mine with an intensity that turned me cold. “I know what you want. Do you think that’ll happen if the Windhammer sinks tonight? I can give you what you’ve prayed for. I can promise it to you.”
I froze, my soul naked in that moment, beneath that penetrating gaze. This woman – whatever she was – knew me, knew every thought I’d ever had and every dream I’d ever let myself forget.
Indecision gripped me. Witchcraft this might have been, but this woman at once was both offering my greatest hopes and threatening the lives of all the men in my ship. This woman had power, and could deliver what she promised. I knew it, as truly as I had ever known anything. It was surely my duty to cut her down where she sat, and yet… I could not.
“Say yes, Saul,” she whispered to me. “Don’t let this storm be the end of you.”
And compelled by some primal conviction that to this day I do not fully comprehend, I opened my mouth to form that single word. But I never got the chance. With a howl of anguish, Matiss lunged forward with his sword, the tip striking towards the old woman’s throat.
The sea was calm when I made my way down those steps to where the Windhammer waited, the lads on board grinning and waving as I stepped on board.
“Looks like it just blew over!” Robson laughed as I stepped on board. “But where are Matiss and the Captain?”
“They’re staying,” I said quietly. Robson looked at me, not understanding. “They’re staying,” I repeated. “I can’t explain, but we… we have to leave, now.”
It took me some time to convince him. I lied a little, but it was what I had to do to get the Windhammer sailing again, away from those dark cliffs, towards home, where our lives waited for us. Where my children waited for me. It had been some time since I’d last seen their faces – since their mother had taken them away, told me they weren’t safe with me, told me I couldn’t look after them.
She wouldn’t listen. She never did. I’d told her she was wrong – I was their father, how could I ever hurt them? It had been an accident, I insisted. I hadn’t meant to…
But now I knew my luck had changed. She’d let me see them. We could start again, rebuild our family. I could leave the Windhammer behind me. For a while, anyway.
I looked out at the sea, so calm and still, nothing like it had been when we first came to this place, mere hours ago. I gripped the railing and winced as Matiss’ face arose unbidden in my mind, shock plastered across his features as my sword emerged from the small of his back. The way the old woman had smiled at me as I’d said the words she wanted to hear.
I watched the cliffs recede into the distance, knowing full well they wouldn’t be there when next this ship sailed these waters. I wouldn’t see them again.
Not for ten years.