They said the beggars noticed it first, each tiny parliament on the docks deciding it was down to one thing. There’d been too much blood spilled beyond the harbor walls for it to stay off the streets. But it wasn’t bindweed and brambles the rain brought sprouting between the cobbles. Storms had a way of stirring things up, and the building’s grinding their way through the streets had answered the call.
‘Careful girl, if you get in the way…’
He yanked the red head out of the path of a speeding Jacobean pile and stared. Mortrissant was having a hard time taking his eyes off the show as tiles rattled and eaves swayed across the stones like their timbers had never left the sea. The kid grinned up at him like he was being stupid and he was tempted to slit her throat right there.
‘They won’t do anything. They’ll have forgotten about me already.’
‘Keep doing what I tell you, and I might believe you.’
He looked at the rags disappearing under a tenement’s doorstep. There hadn’t been much left of his last surviving shipmate at the start, but the house looked intent on eating him right down to his shadow anyway.
‘What’s your name?’
Amongst the toppling braziers and fleeing backs, he hadn’t had time to ask. Mortrissant raised his eyes to heaven; at least he’d got the right one.
‘I don’t understand, why didn’t they try to take you too?’
‘Too full of salt and barnacles. They don’t like the flavor.’
Mortrissant looked around him, at the homes whirling past on foundations that had turned to water, and shivered.
Mortrissant followed Dawn’s finger and saw a redbrick arch over its neighbor before dragging her into the night, ‘How long will it last?’
‘They won’t go on long past dawn, I think. I only saw the lightning hit a couple of times.’
That was good news; he didn’t want his fingers snapped off. Last time had been bad enough and that had been centuries ago. At least with the crew in Davey Jones’ locker, the commission was his, plus whatever else he could secure from the venture. He shook the little brat by his side. All in all, not a bad voyage; if he could stay alive. Mortrissant dodged a crumbling warehouse.
‘What will you do when you have it?’ said the kid.
‘Stop asking questions.’
Sometimes Mortrissant wondered how deep the salt had got into his bones. But, there was still a twinge of sympathy when he looked at her that made him feel uncomfortable. She deserved better than the price she was going to pay.
‘Can’t help it. I was an apprentice until they decided to give me to them. We’re supposed to be inquisitive.’
Mortrissant chuckled, ‘I’m going to take my ship and sail it off the world’s edge. You’re going to help.’
It was his turn to point, this time toward the surf winding between the tenements. ‘You sure this is the right way? The docks are over there.’
‘Yes, I come here sometimes when they’re dancing. Everyone else is afraid. I don’t see why. They don’t want to harm you. When accidents happen it’s only because someone’s careless.’
Mortrissant took a step back as silence spread through the streets with a sigh and the tiles stopped rattling leaving only the soft wash of rain to disturb the night. It looked like they’d found the town’s center.
The skull sat atop its metal spike grinned like it was glad it had company, and for a moment Mortrissant could still see the flesh on its bones. Lightning flickered on the horizon, and he rubbed a hand over his eyes. He wondered if she was lonely stuck there like that.
‘They’re going to be furious if you take it.’
‘What have they done to it?’
Mortrissant’s stomach gave a lurch: if they’d damaged her he’d stay and show them why he’d earned his name.
‘Nothing, it’s always been like that.’
‘Not when I last saw it.’
Bone gleamed where the skulls copper sleeve had peeled away, and you could see where corrosion had rotted holes through its cheeks. He kept his voice to a whisper, ‘I couldn’t help it you know that don’t you? I’d have stopped them if I could.’
He looked around at Dawn glad she hadn’t heard, ‘and the houses? Will they try and stop me?’
‘I don’t think they care,’ said the girl, ‘We’re all the same to them. I moved it once before, and nothing happened,’ she looked at her toes, ‘only a little.’
Mortrissant kept his voice low anyway, he’d no desire to disappear into someone’s basement, ‘Why do they do it?’
‘It likes the lightning,’ Dawn shrugged, ‘The more it eats, the quieter they are. But if it doesn’t eat everything…’ Dawn’s eyes lit up, ‘You know I’ve seen it once like it was on fire: like the flames had worked their way to the bone. They’re going to be so angry when you steal it.’
‘I didn’t say I was going to steal it did I?’
‘No, but I’m not stupid. You and the man back there were going to run away with it, weren’t you?’
‘I need it more than these people, now stand back.’
Mortrissant didn’t tell her why, not yet, she’d find out soon enough.
He put his hands on the skull and felt teeth grin against his palms as he lifted her into the sack. She was heavier than he remembered, particularly with all that copper instead of skin. If you asked him she looked good like that, certainly better than when he’d found her all those years ago sunburnt and starving on the raft. Of course, that had been when she’d still been alive. For a moment the thought crosses his mind that lightning might do other things than burn. He wonders what she’s really made of after all this time.
‘What are you going to do with it?’
His eyes gleam, ‘Take it with me; it knows the way, and I’m the last of the crew left alive.’
‘You’re stupid; there’s no such thing as ‘The Edge of the World’ everyone knows its round.’
‘I never said it wasn’t. It’s just a lot deeper than you think.’
She’d shown them, of course. Mortrissant doubted anything could have got the castaway they found on the raft to stop. Although it had taken more than a few cups to get the information flowing. But when she’d got her strength back she’d ranted and raved plenty. Mortrissant had never seen anything like the raft’s other occupant. The corpse she’d been feeding couldn’t have come from the landlocked seas he was used to or the North’s icy waters. But it had been the map that was the clincher; every Cyrillic letter full of futures buried in its ink.It had taken him a week to sleep after that.
‘With this, I can find the place where it all starts.’
The sound of waves crashing against the shore grew louder for a moment, and Mortrissant paused, ‘Why’s it gone quiet?’
He followed her eyes; the building’s round square was sat as solidly as if their foundations had never moved.
‘Time to leave,’ Dawn made as if to follow, ‘Not you, you stay.’
Mortrissant knew he’d feel bad about it later. He always did when the cost ran this high. But, if they wanted the boat to leave port there’d be a toll to pay one way or another.
He reached for his cutlass and stopped. The skull felt like it was trying to chew its way free. Mortrissant bent an ear to the hessian and tried to listen; he was a reasonable man. If there were another way he’d take it. Besides, the blow that should have severed the little beggar’s arm had met nothing but air.
‘You’re not leaving me here,’ Dawn was stood in front of him with her jaw thrust out and her hands forming fists.
Mortrissnat blinked and joints pop in his back as he straightens up. The skull’s bouncing around so much now it’s like its trying to hammer holes in him, and Mortrissant’s tempted to tell her to shut up, but it’s pointless, she never listened before.
‘Kid, you don’t know what you’re asking.’
Lights flicker in the nearest windows. The occupants of the buildings sound like they’re waking from whatever dream had held them while their houses danced.
‘Trust me, it’ll be quicker this way.’
Shouts have begun to come from the streets too, and they’re getting closer, but there’s something about the way the girl’s standing.
‘You never asked what my ‘pprenticeship was, or why they wanted to use me as a gift.’
Dawn pulls something from behind her back that gleams in the faint light, and Mortrissant’s hand goes straight to the sack. He should have seen it coming of course. It wasn’t like the townsfolk were going to sacrifice one of their innocents was it?
‘Give it back.’
He can see the skull smile between the girl’s fingers.
‘So you can leave me here for them? No.’
Mortrissant’s backing away as figures appear between the building’s eaves. He’d no illusions about what the ports residents would do if they saw the stake’s empty.
‘Your funeral. Is that the way to the harbor?’
He didn’t bother looking back to see if she’d followed. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself now she’d got a sniff of him. When he reaches the alley he ducks behind a corner until the sound of running feet tells him he’s right, curiosity must flow in both of them, father and daughter, as alike as peas in a pod.
‘Get off me.’
Mortrissant ignores her as he drags the little bitch up the wall with his blade an inch from her eye where she can see it. Any closer and he doubted he’d be able to stop himself digging deep so he could find out how much of his blood really was in her. The Countess they’d found floating on her raft had never told him how many others she’d had not even when he’d left. He brings his face close so Dawn can see his eyes.
‘Give her back to me…now.’
There’s a nudge somewhere down where Mortrissant’s guts nestle. He doesn’t have to look to know what it is, it isn’t like it’s the first time.
‘You little cunt.’
Torches light the alley’s mouth for a second but Dawn’s pupils never change.
‘Fine, my sweet. Take it away,’ he looked down, ‘and we’ll call it evens.’ Mortissant waits.
‘Now which way’s the boat?’
‘A couple of streets; then there’ll be that wide bit before the water.’
When they step from the building’s there are men around the gangplank just like he’d thought. Mortrissant grips Dawn’s smock tight.
‘We’ll both end up pecked clean above the high water mark if you don’t play your part.’
‘Just keep the blade in view.’
‘With you? No problem.’
He makes sure it draws a little blood so she knows he’s not joking and marches her into view.
‘Tell the Sherriff I’ve got the kid.’
The nearest spits, ‘You let her loose in the first place.’
Mortrissant laughs, ‘You’re wrong, an easy mistake to make, the faults yours. I’ve caught your runaway.’
‘What are you? A Pirate?’ say’s the man guarding their only way out of here.
‘Even if we believed you it’s a bit late for returning property.’
The men behind the speaker have drawn their knives.
‘You know the child’s a firestarter; we caught her in the act,’ say’s the first.
‘You never told me that girl.’
Mortrissant makes sure there’s horror in his voice as Dawn shrugs, ‘You never asked, why do you think there was such a lot of us? We were going to put an end to it when we escaped.’
But, the townsman isn’t finished.
‘We tried one year with no offerings, no gift. It cost us a hundred that never woke up.’
‘She hasn’t told you then?’
‘Who she is.’
‘Who cares? She’s from the East; we keep the healthier ones.’
‘She’s a Bathory, the daughter of the woman whose head you keep on a stake.’
‘She’s an arsonist, a little firebug. That’s all that matters.’
Mortrissant grips his blade, he’d feel at least some of their blood on his hands before he died. Dawn slipping away is a relief. At least he won’t be responsible this time. He’d done his best to repair the damage he’d done a thousand times over. Maybe the child would survive, maybe even do some good in the world.
The men set off after her like dogs, and for once, Mortrissant’s happy he’s nearly as many decades as fingers. Not one of the pursuit looks in his direction as a splash tells him she’s hit the water and he hobbles towards the ship. By the time the boat’s moving away his grin’s so broad it nearly splits his face in two.
He waits for more shouts, but the wind that’s risen has begun to feel like it’s trying to pull the skin from his bones. If there are any sounds of pursuit, he can’t hear them. When Dawn clambers over the side he hides his smile fast, he’s not ready not yet.
‘You haven’t damaged yourself, have you? No cuts or broken bones? You can tell me, girl.’
Dawn gives him an odd look, and Mortrissant clams up. He’s an old man, too soon and he’d take the risk of her running. He wasn’t going to catch her if she swam, was he? He looks up at the rigging
‘You can feel it can’t you? Give me her.’
Mortrissant’s laugh rises with the wind shrieking through the rigging as she passes the town’s prisoner over. Every chord in the boat’s beginning to sing as the storm rises between the waves.
‘The World’s Edge.’
Copper and bone tremble beneath his hands and the skull’s teeth begin to chitter. He gives up, let her have what she wants.
Mortrissant rockets his elbow into Dawn and grabs her before she damages herself.
‘I warned you, you should have run when you had the chance.’
The skull’s teeth grind in the sack like pebbles in a storm.
‘Stop that, I know you’re fed up. I’ll be as quick as I can.’
Dawn should be grateful Mortissant learned his skills when fighting painted the sails red. The sewing’s easy, splinters are all he has to worry about. The Countess does the rest as offcuts thump into the gunnels.
‘There,’ the figure on the deck stands up, ‘you happier?’
Countess Elizabeth Bathory, curtsies, and her teeth bounce faster than the lightning crackling in the sky.
‘I know, but there’ll be plenty of time for more fixing up later. I brought enough needle and thread for a fleet.’
The storms crawling over the timbers, and Mortrissant realizes his cheek’s beginning to peel. He hadn’t thought it would start so early. He whickers, snorting the words through the bone pushing its way through his face.
‘Hang on my dear heart. There’ll be no pulling you from the waves again if I lose you out here. You take a tumble this time, and we’re lost.’
A hole’s opening in the sea in front of them and Jaquotte Mortrissant feels like he’s young again riding the ship’s deck as it gallops between the wave’s crests. He can see his sisters and brothers curling through the foam and the abyss opening in front of them is deep, he spins the wheel and plants his feet wide.
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