They said the beggars noticed it first. Each tiny parliament on the docks deciding it was down to one thing – storms had a way of stirring things up, and this was one of the worst they’d seen. It wasn’t long before the rain was scarlet with the blood of innocents lost beyond the harbor walls. Certainly it had woken the town. Each building grinding through the streets was more than usually excited now their plaster and bricks were lubricated by the deluge.
‘Careful girl, if you get in the way…’
Mortrissant, captain of a vessel so feared that watch fires were lit whenever it was sighted, yanked the girl in the wedding dress out of the path of a teetering pile. When she grinned at him like he was being stupid he was tempted to slit her throat right there. The furrow down the centre of the street missed their feet by inches.
‘They won’t do anything,’ said the girl with hair as black as a ravens and eyes twice as dark. ‘They’ll have forgotten about me already.’
‘Keep doing what I tell you, and I might believe you.’
He was finding it difficult to take his eyes from rooftops that looked in danger of returning to the sea. But he could see the rags disappearing under a tenement’s doorstep. There hadn’t been much left of his shipmates at the start, but the house rolling over the last seemed intent on eating him right down to the bonnet anyway.
‘What’s your name?’ said Mortissant.
Mortrissant raised his eyes to heaven; at least he’d gotten the right one. Amongst the toppling braziers and fleeing backs, he hadn’t had time to ask.
‘I don’t understand; why didn’t the townsfolk kill you?’ said the girl.
‘Too full of salt and barnacles,’ said Mortrissant. ‘They don’t like the flavor.’
Mortrissant looked at the houses whirling past like the streets had turned to water and shivered.
‘Look,’ came the girl’s voice.
Mortrissant followed her finger and saw a buttress arch round its neighbor before dragging the townhouse’s quivering beams into the night. ‘They’re all at it. Maybe they’ve given up on the offering. How long will it last?’
‘Not past dawn,’ said the girl. ‘I only saw lightning a couple of times.’
That was good news; Mortrissant didn’t want any accidents. Last time he’d tracked the prize down had been bad enough and that had been a couple of centuries ago. At least with the crew in Davey Jones’ locker the whole commission was his, plus whatever else he could secure from the venture. He shook the brat by his side. All in all not a bad voyage; if he could stay alive. Mortrissant dodged a crumbling warehouse awash on a tidal wave of blood and water.
‘What will you do when you find the treasure?’ said the kid.
‘What treasure? I didn’t say anything about any treasure; stop asking questions.’
Sometimes Mortrissant wondered how deep the salt was in his bones. These days he didn’t need to leave his bed to feel cranky and stiff. But there was still a twinge of sympathy when he looked at her that made him feel uncomfortable. She deserved better than the price he was going to make her pay.
‘Can’t help it,’ said the girl. ‘I was an apprentice until they decided to give me away.’ Mortissant grimaced, she was young enough to be his daughter. Princesse isn’t finished though. ‘We’re supposed to ask them.’
‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,’ said Mortissant. ‘I’m going to take my ship and sail it into the world; that’s the real treasure. You’re going to help.’
He looked around and said, ‘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. The houses don’t want to harm you. When accidents happen it’s only because someone’s careless.’
‘Wait…’ Mortrissant had gone still. ‘There she is.’
Silence spread through the streets with a sigh and the tiles stopped rattling all at once leaving only the soft wash of rain to disturb the night. It looked like they’d found the center.
‘That’s her. I’d know her anywhere. Right down to the bone,’ said Mortrissant.
The skull sat atop the spike grinned like it was glad it had company at last, and for a moment Mortrissant could still see flesh on it. Lightning flickered and he rubbed a hand over his eyes. She’d be lonely stuck there like that.
‘They’re going to be furious if you take it,’ said Princesse.
‘Why shouldn’t I? She’ll be cold.’
Mortrissant’s stomach gave a lurch; if they’d damaged her he’d stay and show them just why he’d earned his name.
‘How do you know it’s a her?’ said Princesse. ‘ Anyway, it can’t feel anything. It’s a skull.’
‘Not when I last saw it.’
Bone gleamed where the skulls copper sleeve had peeled away and Mortrissant kept his voice to a whisper as he came up to its side. ‘I couldn’t help it you know that don’t you? I’d have stopped them if I could.’
He looked round at Princesse to check she hadn’t heard the madman whispering to a skull.
‘The houses?’ said Mortrissant to the girl instead. ‘Will they try and stop me?’
His hands were hovering an inch from the disembodied head.
‘I don’t think they care about much when they’re dancing,’ 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, I promise.’
‘I don’t understand why they don’t they just knock them down.’
‘The town likes lightning,’ Princesse shrugged, ‘and the more the skull eats, the quieter they are. But it doesn’t swallow everything.’ Princesse’s eyes lit up, ‘I saw a bolt hit it once.’ She tapped the top her head. ‘It looked like it was on fire; like the flames had worked their way inside. 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.’ Princesse gave him a little-lopsided smile like she’d heard about being devious but hadn’t quite learned how to do it. ‘You and the man back there were going to run off with it, weren’t you? Before he died that is.’
‘I need it more than these people,’ snarled Mortrissant. ‘Now stand back.’
He didn’t tell her why he’d taken the job, not yet, she’d find out soon enough.
Mortrissant finally put his hands on the prize and felt its teeth grin as he lifted it into the sack he had ready. She was heavier than he remembered, particularly with all that copper on her. If you asked him she looked good like that, certainly better than when he’d found her all those years ago sun-burnt and starving on the raft. That had been not long after her family had got rid of her. She’d still been alive then, or what passed for it among her kind. For a moment the thought crosses his mind that lightning might do other things than burn and he wonders what she’s really made of after all this time.
‘What are you going to do with it?’ said the girl.
Mortrissant’s eyes gleam, ‘I’m going to use it to find a well; one that goes down so deep it reaches other worlds. The skull knows the way, and I’m the last of the crew left alive so it’s all mine.’
‘You’re stupid; there’s no such thing as a well like that; besides everyone knows the earth’s flat. It wouldn’t be deep enough.’
‘Maybe so,’ smiled Mortrissant, ‘but I’m still going to try.’
She’d shown them of course, Mortrissant doubted she could have done anything else after they’d given her a few cups of what she begged from them and the taste had come back. By the time the victim’s body had stopped twitching she’d ranted and raved plenty. Mortrissant had never seen anything like the rafts other occupant either; not in the southern seas or the frozen landlocked oceans of the north. It was clear the castaway had been feeding off it. But it had been the map in its hand that had really got their attention; every Cyrillic letter full of the secrets 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.’
Mortrissant brandished the skull overhead as a peal of thunder bounced off the thunderheads. The waves crashing against the shore grew louder for a moment, and Mortrissant stopped his laughter, ‘Why’s it gone quiet?’
He followed her eyes; the building’s round the square looked like they’d never moved.
‘Time to go,’ he said and Princesse made as if to follow. ‘Not you, you stay.’
Mortissant’s pulled his cutlass free. He knew he’d feel bad about it later. He always did when the cost ran so high. But his blow whistled through empty air.
He lowered his blade already slightly out of breath. The skull felt like it was trying to chew its way from the bag he’d dropped it in. Mortrissant brought it to his ear and listened; he was a reasonable man. If there were another way he’d take it.
‘You’re not leaving me here,’ Princesse had reappeared in front of him with her jaw thrust out and her hands on her hips.
Mortrissant blinked and joints popped in his back as he straightened up. The skull was bouncing around so much now it felt like it was on the verge of breaking free, and Mortrissant was tempted to tell it to shut up, but it’s pointless. She never listened before.
‘You don’t know what you’re asking girl. Trust me, it’ll be quicker this way. Just hold still this time.’
Lights had begun to flicker in the nearest windows as the occupants woke from the dreams that had held them while their houses danced. Mortrissant cocked an ear; he can hear shouts coming from the nearby streets. He looks round for Princesse.
‘You never asked what my ‘pprenticeship was,’ say’s the girl. ‘Or why they want to use me as a gift.’
She pulled something from behind her wedding gown that gleams in the faint light. He should have seen it coming. It wasn’t like the townsfolk were going to sacrifice one of their innocents was it?
‘Give it back,’ says Mortrissant.
The skull is smiling at him from between the girl’s fingers.
‘So you can leave me here for them?’ says the girl. ‘No.’
Mortrissant backed away as figures appear between the building’s. He’s no illusions about what the ports residents would do once they saw the stake was empty.
‘Your funeral. Is that the way to the harbor?’
He didn’t bother looking back to see if she’d followed. She either realised he was the only way out or she stayed and faced the mob. When Mortrissant reached the alley he ducked inside and waited for the sound of running feet.
Curiosity’s bound to flow in both of them, father and daughter. They’d be as alike as peas in a pod.
‘Got you,’ said Mortissant as his suspicions are proved correct and the girl runs into his waiting arms.
‘Get off me.’
He ignores her scream as he drags the little bitch up the wall with his blade in front of her eyes where she can see it. Much closer and he doubted he’d be able to stop. He wanted to find out how much of his blood really was in her, how much he was really being asked to sacrifice. The Countess they’d found on her raft had never told him how many others she’d had not even when he’d told her he was leaving – sick of the sight of yet another young corpse that needed clearing away. He brought his face close so his daughter can see his eyes.
‘Give her back to me…now.’
There’s a nudge down where Mortrissant’s guts nestle. He doesn’t have to look to know its a knife, it isn’t like it’s the first time.
‘You little whore.’
‘Thief, thank you.’
Torches light the alley’s mouth for a second but Princesse never looks away.
‘Fine, my sweet. Take your pig sticker off my guts, and we’ll call it evens.’ Mortissant waits until he feels the blade disappear.
‘The boats a couple of streets over,’ say’s the girl. ‘The harbourside’s wide open. There’ll be guards on it though.’
‘We’ll deal with them when we get there. Now move.’
When they step from the building’s there are men around the gangplank just like she’d said. Mortrissant grinned and tightened his hand on Princesse; winding his fingers deep in her smock.
‘We’ll both end up pecked clean above the high water mark if you don’t play your part, ‘ he hisses out of the side of his mouth as they approach the group.
‘Just keep the blade in view,’ says the girl with that special arrogance only the young have. ‘We’ll be fine.’
‘With you on the end of it? No problem.’
He makes sure it draws a little blood so she knows he’s not joking and shoves her forward.
‘I found the kid,’ shouts Mortissant.
The nearest spits, ‘You let her loose in the first place; bailiff told us.’
Mortrissant laughs and answers him, ‘You’re wrong, an easy mistake to make, the fault’s yours. You should be grateful I’ve caught your runaway.’
‘Who do you think you are pirate?’ say’s another of the men blocking their way.
‘Aye that’s me, a picaroon to you, or a marauder if you wish.’
‘Bit late for returning property.’
The speaker’s cap’s pulled so far down over his face you can barely see his eyes. Behind him, his friends have drawn their knives.
‘You know what you’ve got there’s a firestarter? We caught her in the act,’ say’s the first.
The men’s grins don’t make Mortrissant want to join in.
‘You never told me that,’ he shakes Princesse, making sure there’s a note of genuine outrage in his voice.
The girl shrugs, ‘You never asked. I was going to put an end to it when you turned up; burn it all down.’
The townsman isn’t finished.
‘She should go with the other brides. We tried one year with no offerings, no gifts. It cost us a hundred that never woke up.’
‘She hasn’t told you then?’ Mortrissant has to think fast – there’s obviously no appealing to their sense of mercy.
‘Who she is.’
‘Who cares?’ says the groups ring leader. ‘She’s from the East. We keep the healthier ones.’
‘She’s a Bathory, the daughter of that woman whose head you keep on a stake.’
‘She’s an arsonist, a little firebug. That’s all that matters. A ne’er do well same as all the others we give to the town.’
Mortrissant grips his blade. He’s tired of arguing and he can feel every one of his years piling up in his bones. Even his fingers seemed to ache most mornings now. But he’d feel at least some of their blood on his hands before he died.
When Princesse slips away its a relief. At least he won’t be responsible this time. He’d done his best to repair the damage he’d done when he’d brought the witch to the countess’s court a thousand times, not that it had made much difference. Maybe this child would survive, maybe even do some good.
The men set off after her like dogs, and for once, Mortrissant’s happy he’s more decades than he can easily remember. Not one of the pursuit looks in his direction as a splash tells him she’s hit water and he hobbles towards the ship. By the time the boat’s moving his grin’s so broad it nearly splits his face in two.
He waits for more shouts, but the wind feels like it’s trying to pull the skin from his bones. If there are sounds of pursuit he can’t hear them. When Princesse clambers over the side he hides his smile fast.
‘You haven’t damaged yourself, have you?’ says Mortissant. ‘No cuts or broken bones? You can tell me.’
Princesse 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 swims, was he? He looks up at the rigging
‘You can feel it can’t you? Give me her,’ he gestures for the sack.
Mortrissant’s laugh rises once more with the wind shrieking through the rigging as she passes the skull over.
‘What is that?’ says Princesse, and her eyes are big and round as she stares over the waves.
‘The Well. I told you, can’t you feel it?’
The skull’s teeth have begun to chitter as Mortrissant draws it from the bag. He takes his hand away, let her have what she wants.
He rockets his elbow into Princesse and grabs her before she damages herself. She’s out cold.
‘I told you girl; you should have stayed.’
The skull’s teeth are grinding now like the pebbles of a storm swept beach.
‘Stop that,’ says Mortrissant to the skull. ‘I know you’re fed up. I’ll be as quick as I can.’
Princesse should be grateful Mortissant learned his skills when fighting painted the sails red, thought Mortissant as he began to cut. At least the sewing will be quick although the augur was the hardest part. Punching holes through bone was never easy. But soon splinters are all he has to worry about. The Countess does the rest as off cuts thump into the gunnels.
‘There,’ says Mortrissant as the figure on the deck stands up. ‘You happy? I made them extra strong this time so you don’t fall off.
Countess Elizabeth Bathory, curtsies, and her teeth bounce faster than the lightning flickering on the horizon. The stitches round her neck seem sturdy enough decides Mortissant with a critical eye.
‘I know,’ says the pirate, ‘but there’s nothing I can do about that until we find the right one. You’ll just have to stop being so vain until then. Anyway, there’ll be plenty of time for fixing you up later. We’ll find a girl from somewhere and you can borrow hers. I brought enough needle and thread for a fleet just in case; you always lose them.
Lightning’s crawling over the timbers, and Mortrissant realizes his cheeks are beginning to peel already. 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 in this. You take a tumble, and we’re lost.’
The hole opening in the sea in front of them’s getting deeper by the second and Jaquotte Mortrissant feels young again riding the ship’s deck as it plunges between the waves. He can see his brothers and sisters curling through the foam alongside them and the abyss in front is so deep he can’t see the bottom. He spins the wheel and plants his feet wide.
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