Corsair Queen (3/8)

Captain Petyr Harker. The last time Rose’d seen this conniving scallywag, he’d been cradling the splintered bloody ruin of his hand, the hand he’d always boasted slew Black Bart. Limping away into the fog with a fresh pistol ball deep in his shoulder.

Her pistol ball.

The Truce of the Sinking Soul was a long-standing Bloodhaven tradition. More an unwritten rule than a strictly enforced custom, it allowed rival crews to gather without bloodshed when their captains attended the all-too-frequent funerals of crusty old seadogs. That violent men and women would abide by such an archaic custom always struck Rose as somewhat quaint, and until now she’d always kept it in the if it ain’t broken part of her mind.

An iron grip seized her right elbow and pulled her clenched fist back. ‘Easy, captain,’ Jonny murmured as he dragged her off Petyr. ‘Easy now …’

Part of her wanted to land another vengeful punch, but by now Jonny had hauled her back onto her feet and her anger was draining away like bilge water. She let herself be reluctantly pulled upright.

Upon our last descent,’ said a rum-sodden voice in her ear. ‘All gathered heed this oath.’

Peace be upon us all,’ she repeated automatically. ‘No harm to body or soul.’

No shot nor blade, no serpent nor spell,’ Jonny added.

Observe the Truce of the Sinking Soul!’ finished Petyr, scrambling away from her.

Rose sighed heavily and turned to see who else had pulled her off Petyr. A hunched wretch in an expensive kraken-skin coat, fresh sharkskin tie, and glistening stingray flat-cap that was far above the tattered sackcloth he normally wore.

‘Thorne?’ She stared at him, shrugging off Jonny’s hands.

‘It’s Captain Thorne these days,’ he smirked, spitting a phlegmy wad of seaweed baccy to the deck and missing Rose’s polished boot by an inch.

Rose scoffed. ‘You? A captain? Since when?’

Thorne preened like a monkey cradling a freshly stolen mango. ‘Got me a ship now, and a new crew of hearty bilge-rats off the back of what you done to Abel Flint.’ His breath stank like a bucket of rotten clams. Thorne might parade in expensive clothes, but he could never change who he truly was.

Thorne gazed across the moonlit waves to where the distant Wicked Wench lay at anchor. ‘Lookit you, the respectable dame turned pirate queen. I contracted you to deliver cargo on Morrigan’s behalf, d’you remember?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘But you chose to liberate it.’

Rose’s hand drifted to the pale knotted scar on her other wrist, where the faint P brand still ached. An outlaw’s life of piracy and plunder on the open sea, all from a single act of kindness. ‘People ain’t cargo, mate.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘You always were a bottom feeder, weren’t you? Now get out my way.’

Thorne stepped aside with a smirk. ‘Mark me words, Rose Rackham, you’ll get what’s comin’ to ya.’

‘Promises, promises,’ muttered Rose, and in two quick strides she loomed over Petyr Harker. She held her arm out and rippled her fingers, as if flipping a coin along her knuckles.

‘Need a hand?’ she grinned.

‘That supposed to be funny?’

‘It is funny,’ Rose nodded. ‘Look how I’m smiling.’

Petyr squinted up at her proffered hand through an eye already swollen and purple. Despite the obvious pain of his bleeding nose and bruised gut, he grinned crookedly.

‘If I give you my good hand, are you gonna shoot it off?’ he asked.

‘I ain’t planning to, but the day’s still young yet.’

He took her hand and let Rose haul him to his feet.

‘Why’re you here, Petyr?’ she asked.

‘There might not be a Corsair’s Conclave anymore, but traditions need to be upheld, yes?’

‘So I keep hearing.’ Rose glanced aside at Jonny. She pulled a handkerchief from inside her coat and handed it to Petyr. He nodded gratefully and wiped the blood from his lips before handing it back.

‘Keep it,’ she said, then looked him up and down, taking in his tailored clothing, the well-fed cheeks, and the empty scabbard that might have held a fine cutlass. Whatever had become of Petyr after maiming his hand, he’d clearly bounced back well enough.

‘I keep wondering if I should’ve killed you back on that island,’ she mused.

Petyr snorted. ‘I’ve often wondered why you let me live. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you didn’t kill me, but let’s be honest, I’m just the sorta fellow to seek dramatic revenge in some stupidly elaborate scheme.’

Rose laughed. ‘That you are, Petyr, that you are. But if you want the truth, I didn’t kill you because killing you would’ve been Morrigan’s choice, and I always try to be better than he was.’

‘And how’s that working out for you?’

‘It’s a work in progress,’ admitted Rose as Jonny approached, tin mugs in one hand and a large bottle of rum in the other.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘If the Truce is still holding and we’re not gonna start killing each other, then we might as well have a swig of Morrigan’s rum, eh?’

Rose passed a mug to Petyr before taking one herself as Jonny poured them each a dram of the syrupy brown rum. He raised his own mug in a toast. ‘Keep your powder dry and your cutlass sharp.’

‘May all your lookouts be sober,’ Petyr added.

‘And the world will turn,’ finished Rose, and the three of them clacked mugs.

Rose tipped her head back and swigged a mouthful, wincing at the gritty, overly sweet taste. ‘Ugh, that’s bad. That’s really bad,’ she muttered, pouring out the dregs of her rum onto the deck. ‘You sure they didn’t stow Morrigan’s body in the rum barrel instead of the cannon?’

‘Morrigan was famed for many things — being a cruel old bastard, a ruthless captain, and a seasoned killer — but not his generosity in vittles,’ Petyr sniggered, tipping the remains of his rum onto the deck.

‘I didn’t know you knew him.’

Petyr shook his head. ‘I didn’t. I mean, I knew him by reputation, of course, but it’s not like I ever set foot on the Moon Serpent before today.’

‘The man was an enigma.’ Thorne had sidled up to Jonny and was holding out his own mug. ‘A regular man of mystery, but who cares about that? He’s dead, and we sure ain’t.’

Rose shrugged in agreement and nodded to Jonny, who duly poured Thorne a generous measure.

‘Aye,’ continued Thorne. ‘There’s none here gathered who knows much of the man. They say he never came ashore neither. Always sent one of them vicious twins. So, did you hear how he died?’

‘I heard he was stabbed in his sleep by a cabin boy who’d taken one too many beatings,’ said Captain Blaxton, arriving with mug in hand.

‘That’s what you heard?’ Thorne frowned. ‘I heard he drank himself to death on rotgut liquor.’

‘I heard he choked to death on a concubine,’ piped up a passing sailor.

No sound but the creak of sodden timbers and a number of brains thinking fast.

‘I think you mean cucumber,’ Thorne offered.

‘That’s right, cucumber,’ the sailor grinned gormlessly as he trudged away. ‘I’ve never been good at them long words.’

‘Very important difference in a salad situation,’ Blaxton muttered, making Rose snort into her tankard. Then she frowned. ‘I heard he choked to death on a barb-squid that weren’t quite dead in his dinner.’

Jonny shook his head. ‘Nah, that’s just what the cutters on the Slaughter Docks are saying. I heard it from one of the chandlers down the grottoes that he was so drunk he fell overboard. His pockets were so laden with gold that he sank all the way down, straight into the waiting arms of the Bearded Lady.’

Instinctively, they all peered over the gunwale to the ocean depths far below, the slate-black waves swirling around the ship. Rose saw her wavering reflection, splintered by the water and lapping at the barnacled hull. Hard waves broke against the ship — the kind you only saw when something large was rising up from far below.

‘Told you it had an evil cast to it tonight,’ Jonny muttered.

Rose exhaled and tapped her left eye twice with her right thumb, an old sailor’s tradition to ward off evil spirits.

‘Ach, he was an old man, maybe he just died,’ she shrugged. ‘That’s what old men do best.’

‘True enough.’ Blaxton nodded out to sea. ‘Fog’s rolling in.’

A chill crawled through Rose as she saw the fog creeping in from the southeast; cold, clammy, and heavy with the stench of the deepest ocean trenches, briny and damp.

‘Don’t matter none how the old bastard died,’ said Thorne. ‘All that matters is what happens to his ship and his crew. That’s why we’re all here, ain’t it? Every one of us wants to claim that big prize, don’t we?’

All four captains studied one another, each knowing that was exactly why they were here.

‘No one ever found his serpent sigil, did they?’ asked Blaxton.

‘His sigil?’ Jonny scoffed. ‘Likely as not, it’s sealed away in that cannon with him. Doesn’t matter anyway, no one pays any heed to a captain’s sigil these days.’

Rose folded her arms. ‘Maybe they should. Maybe there’d be a lot less bloodshed if you could just claim a ship and crew with the previous captain’s sigil.’

‘Aww, scared of a little blood, are ya?’ grinned Thorne. ‘Ain’t got the stomach for it, eh?’

Rose stepped toward him, hand drifting to her cutlass hilt. ‘Truce or not, talk to me like that again and I’ll happily show you how much stomach I have for bloodshed.’

‘Didn’t mean to go upsettin’ ya, Captain Rackham,’ sniggered Thorne, baring black nubs of teeth and rotten gums. ‘Just wondering how many of ’em here gathered would have even the slightest hesitation of trying to claim Morrigan’s crew if they could get their hands on that there sigil?’

Rose gazed past Thorne at the other captains gathered on the Moon Serpent’s deck, wondering the same thing. Most of them were small fry, with crews too green to make a serious play for Morrigan’s flagship, but the three drinking rum with her … Now that was a motley crew indeed, and any one of them might be a deadly rival she needed to worry about stabbing her in the back.

Before any of them could give any answer to Thorne’s question, Rose felt the deck shift underfoot, a slow roll and dip. She reached inside her coat and pulled out a silver coin, flicking it over the side of the ship.

Thorne watched it tumble down beneath the waves, and for a moment she wondered if he might dive in after it like a hungry gannet chasing a minnow.

‘Why’d ya do that?’ he scowled. ‘This ain’t your ship.’

‘Someone has to,’ Rose shrugged as the Moon Serpent’s tattered sails unfurled. ‘We’re getting underway.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (2/8)

Hand over hand, Rose and Jonny climbed up to the Moon Serpent’s deck.

A pair of grim-faced twins in leather breeches and pale grimy shirts took Rose’s weapons and Jonny’s marlinspike dagger as soon as they clambered over the gunwale. Both women were heavily muscled and angrily sober, no doubt wishing they were ashore partaking in Morrigan’s rum-soaked wake instead of forming a skeleton crew for a bunch of captains who would sooner dance a jig to see one another dead.

One of the twins wore a scuttle-crab helmet and matching patchwork shell armour, while the other’s face was festooned with tattoos of unblinking eyes. When she grinned over Rose’s finely-crafted flintlock pistols, her mouth glinted with teeth prized from a razorscale’s jawbone.

Rose followed them as they made their way to the quarterdeck, and marked which of three chests they stowed the confiscated weapons into — cannonball dent on the right side.

An enormous bronze cannon sat on a carved ebony gun carriage just in front of the chests. The weapon’s flared muzzle was sealed with wax, and the sail-shrouded corpse of Captain Morrigan would be entombed within, pickled in rum, vinegar and camphor for its final ocean voyage down to the seabed.

‘Shame to send something so beautiful off to the deeps,’ Rose sighed. ‘The cannon, I mean.’

‘Aye,’ Jonny agreed. ‘A finer thirty pounder I’ve yet to see, but it’s tradition, and ye don’t go messing with traditions, right?’

‘Riiight,’ Rose deadpanned. ‘Lady help us if we ever bucks tradition, eh?’ She turned her attention to the broad-shouldered figure standing immobile next to the ship-wrecker. He was swathed in a robe of iridescent scales with a wide-mouthed shark-head hood ringed in razor teeth. He carried a tentacle-wrapped billhook, and Rose’s eyebrows rose. ‘A rare honour to have a serpent caller at a Captain’s Requiem.’

‘Amazing what enough gold krakens can buy you, eh?’ Jonny smirked, eyeing the newcomer. Within his jagged hood, the shaman wore a twisted coral mask over his mouth and nose, his eyes and forehead obscured by a dried squid’s body with crudely cut eyeholes through which his glinting eyes roved over the gathered captains. The wide deck was thronged with a host of Bloodhaven reavers in all their finery: long greatcoats, sharkskin boots, floppy tricorn hats, and archaic scraps of armour that would surely drag them down to the ocean floor if they fell overboard. Rose saw a wealth of gold and silver sigils alongside medals, fishhook amulets, and lucky talismans to honour the ancient leviathans of the deep.

Some captains she knew from fighting or drinking — often both — while others she knew only by reputation. They all knew her, of course. With her flowing blood-red hair tumbling to her shoulders, lithe creamy skin crisscrossed with battle scars, and confident swagger, Rose Rackham was a hard woman to miss in any circumstance, but on this ship she was indeed a wild rose among poison thorns.

‘Quite the gathering, eh?’ Jonny’s flinty grey eyes drifted over the crowd.

‘Nothing like death to really bring folks together,’ muttered Rose.

Jonny nodded sagely, ‘Now I know how a fat wave-rider feels when it has itself surrounded by a pack of hungry longtooths.’

Rose patted his back, grinning. ‘You got it backward, old salt. I’m the longtooth here.’ She strolled across the quarterdeck and back, adjusting each stride for the sway of the ship. Just as every pistol had its own unique character, so too did every ship; its own way to crest the tides and heed the wind. She moved with the anchored ship’s roll and sway, letting the creak and groan of seasoned timbers tell their secrets from her boots upward.

‘A shallow-riding wallower,’ she said. ‘Surprising for such a wide-beamed vessel.’

‘I likes ’em broad in the beam,’ Jonny grunted, instinctively widening his stance.

Rose winked. ‘So I heard.’

‘Ain’t as nimble as a cutter,’ said Jonny, ignoring her jibe, ‘but I’ll wager a bottle of Myron’s Dark she’ll clasp you tight to ’er bosom in rough seas.’

‘That she will, Jonny,’ said a slender woman dressed in a long blue overcoat, with gold cuffs and bronze-fringed epaulettes. ‘She’s a grand old dame, right sure. Sank Darkwill’s Glory and even poked a few holes in the Wicked Wench afore the Mudtown fogs closed in and saved its cursed hide.’ A salt-stiffened bottle-green bicorn flopped at a rakish angle on the woman’s shaven head, and her dim eyes — two poached eggs wobbling in a bowl of fish chowder — told Rose she’d been going ten rounds with a bottle of rum already. And losing. Her skin had the waxy, yellowish pallor of someone recently returned from a long choppy sea voyage.

‘Cap’n Blaxton.’ Jonny tipped his hat. ‘I heard you was dead.’

‘Rumours of my death wash around Bloodhaven with every sunset,’ Blaxton grinned, baring grimy crooked teeth. ‘Men weep at every tale, and their wives curse the morn of their falseness. I assures you, I’m in the rudest of health.’ She bent an elegant leg and bowed to Rose before offering her a hand. Taking it, Rose’s hackles prickled; despite Blaxton’s drunken appearance and clammy feather-light grip, she felt hard-earned calluses and powder burn ridges on Blaxton’s palm. A gutter-rat fighter through and through.

‘Marla Blaxton at yer service, Cap’n Rackham,’ Blaxton drawled, releasing Rose’s hand. ‘Recently returned from a year of raiding the Amarantine Coast, where the sea’s forever clear, the sky cloudless blue, and the coastal settlements fat with more gold than a captain could spend in ten lifetimes.’

‘How wonderful,’ Rose snarked. ‘Why would you ever choose to return?’

‘Good times only last so long, y’know. The islanders had some strange notions about ‘ownership’ and ‘not being dead’. Also, they was able to summon some curious mage-types who turned the sea an’ sky ’gainst me in ways I ain’t never seen before.’

‘Ah. So you lost all your ships,’ grinned Jonny.

‘A few,’ allowed Blaxton, waving a dismissive hand. ‘A temporary setback, Jonny. One from which I expect to bounce back any day now.’

‘Perhaps with a new crew and a shallow-riding wallower of a brigantine?’ suggested Rose, elbowing her in the ribs.

Blaxton laughed. ‘Anything’s possible.’ She gave them another graceful bow before rejoining a group of captains gathered around a leaking barrel of rum by the foremast.

Rose’s heart jolted as she glimpsed a face she recognised, an enemy face.

Jonny saw him too and gripped her arm, pulling her away.

‘Remember the Truce!’ he hissed urgently.

Rose didn’t answer, razor-focused on the man before her. She wrenched her arm free and strode blank-eyed toward him, her frozen mask hiding the hatred sizzling within.

Blond hair tied back in a rough ponytail, that loose strand artfully hanging just so over his handsome, clean-shaven face. He looked up and met her gaze, his eyes widening at her approach. ‘N-Now Rose,’ he stammered, opening his arms wide. ‘Look, I know we —’

Rose hammered her fist into his gut without even breaking stride. He buckled over as if struck by a twenty-four pounder cannonball; his handsome face met her rising knee with a sickening wet crunch of bone. He keeled over backward and Rose pounced on him, straddling his chest and clawing for her pistol before remembering too late it was locked tight in a chest beside the mainmast.

Cannonball dent in the right side.

Instead she hauled his lolling head up by the collar and drew her fist back for another punch. He coughed blood and raised a maimed hand, the last two fingers missing.

‘P-Please,’ he wheezed through a broken nose and a mouthful of blood.

‘Hello, Petyr,’ she growled. ‘Been a while, hasn’t it?’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Corsair Queen (1/8)

The stench of Bloodhaven always hit you first. Like a gut-punch that ripped the wind right out of your sails. The stink always seeped deep inside your bones, making you feel like you’d never scrub it out even with bucketfuls of lye and fingernails bloody from scouring.

An overwhelming reek of gaping whale bellies, dripping caverns of entrails you could crawl through, and weeks-old offal plastered to the wharfside cobbles like gory mortar rotting under scorching sunlight. Mixed with the birdshit of ten thousand seagulls and the piss buckets from the Slaughter Docks’ bloodied workers, and the queasy smell overturned even the strongest stomachs. You might wear a bandana soaked in enough rum to souse the Bearded Lady herself, and it’d still make you weak at the knees.

Yes, the stench was awful, but Rose Rackham loved what it heralded. The smell of plunder, a plentiful catch, and fresh bounties well-earned. A red tide ensured people’s pockets bulged with coins, ready to spend them in the quayside taverns, gambling dens and fleshpots that all paid a cut of their takings to Rose. Prosperity, yes — but by the Bearded Lady, it was still the worst smell across all Seven Seas.

Her small rowboat eased out into the sludge-choked harbour, its flickering prow lantern marking passage through the darkening night. Lounging in the stern Rose draped her hand over the gunwale, trailing her fingertips through the fatty scum on the oil-slicked water.

‘Even fer you, that’s pretty damn reckless,’ Jonny grunted, straining back and forth on the oars. A crusty salt-bitten veteran of Cragtooth Isle, her conscience and right-hand bosun had seen pretty much every dark nook and cranny Bloodhaven could hide. His wrinkled face, long-flayed by seaspray and pitiless winds, hid a razor-keen mind the rum hadn’t dulled the edge off yet.

Rose quirked an eyebrow. ‘How so?’

Jonny’s scowl deepened. ‘They’s ripper fish an’ flaying lampreys lurking just ’neath the surface.’

‘Aw,’ she teased, ‘scared I’ll get me fingers bitten off?’

‘Can’t pull a trigger without yer fingers.’

‘You worry too much, Jonny.’

‘That’s me job, worryin’ about them things you ain’t worried enough about.’

‘Like this boat ride out to the Moon Serpent?’

‘Exactly,’ Jonny muttered. ‘I have a sayin’, and it ain’t steered me wrong none since I heard it at me pa’s knee: If it smells bad, leave it damn well alone, ye idiot!

Rose shrugged. ‘Everything smells bad out here.’

‘P’raps so, but that don’t change the truth of it.’ Heaving away, Jonny glanced over his shoulder into the mist coiling across the water, where the Moon Serpent lurked ahead like a dark nightmare. ‘The sea’s an evil tint tonight.’ He shuddered. ‘Feels like hungry eyes starin’ up from them deeps.’

‘Your old knucklebones whispering to you again?’

Jonny rattled the locket around his wizened neck. ‘Ye mock me, lass, but I been listening to ’em for more’n forty years now, an’ I’m still alive, ain’t I?’

‘Ease up, cully,’ Rose sighed. ‘It’s a Captain’s Requiem, I have to attend. And if I have to be there in this ridiculous getup, then my second-in-command should be there too.’

Said ridiculous getup consisted of a — literally breathtaking — whalebone corset of cobalt blue and gold-rimmed lace beneath a long-tailed scarlet frock coat. Along with her pale breeches tucked into thigh-length black leather boots, Rose cut a rakish figure sauntering through any crowd.

An absurdly impractical outfit, but in a gathering of captains it wouldn’t do to look anything less than obscenely wealthy. A poor captain was a weak one, and like every other predator, Bloodhaven reavers ruthlessly preyed on the weak. Jonny hadn’t escaped the smartening up, either; under duress (and threat of demotion) he wore a too-large coat of sealskin leather, a moleskin waistcoat whose buttons threatened to burst from their seams with every oar-stroke, and a dented stovepipe hat with a rakish tentacle headband.

‘Looks like a clown, I does,’ he grumbled. ‘I might have to be there, but that don’t mean I gotta like it.’

‘True, but I need you to watch my back,’ Rose assured him. ‘Morrigan had a large crew, and with him dead every captain will be circling like a searat in heat. Last thing I need is his old crewmates slipping over to a rival captain or falling in with those marauding Jackdaws or Butcher Blades.”

‘Aye, there’s that,’ admitted Jonny. ‘Lot o’ powerful captains be here to see Morrigan off to the Bearded Lady, but d’you really trust all of ’em to abide by the Truce?’

‘Not even an oyster’s fart,’ Rose grinned, opening her coat to reveal a pair of ivory-handled flintlock pistols holstered beneath each armpit, before patting the basket-hilted cutlass on her left hip. ‘But it ain’t like I’m going in unarmed.’

‘They’ll take ’em off you, sure as eggs.’

‘Please, d’you think they’re the only weapons I’m packing?” she smirked, tapping her forehead.

‘Fair enough, but this still feels risky.’

‘Sure is, but what’s life without a little risk?’

‘I’ll remind you o’ that if this plan sinks pronto.’

Rose winked. ‘If’n it does, I promise you can haunt me forever from our watery grave, skipper.’

Jonny crossed himself and shook his head, but resumed rowing. In deference to Jonny’s superstitions, Rose lifted her hand from the water and flicked the scum from her fingertips. Something toothy rippled the surface and Jonny smirked. Told ya.

Far behind them, the ramshackle crags of Bloodhaven shimmered in the fog, flickering anthills where people – her people – lived upon the flotsam and jetsam the ocean vomited forth. Its structures clung to the rocky outcrops like persistent barnacles neither storm, Harrowing, nor the occasional imperial war-galley could ever entirely dislodge.

Like Rose, this stinking cesspit was a survivor.

Since her first command, she’d fought the unquiet spirits of the Shadow Isles and survived countless attempts on her life. Consolidating her rule over Bloodhaven had been a messy, bloody affair, her grip still as shaky as an apprentice rigger on their first clamber up the rigging. But she was still alive despite all the venom – and weapons – aimed her way.

‘Ship ahoy,’ Jonny grunted.

Rose gazed past him to see a looming shape emerge from the rising mist. Much like its former captain, the Moon Serpent was an old, unsubtle brute; broad-beamed and festooned with dozens of hooded lanterns hanging from its many masts. The brigantine’s reinforced timbers were thickly caulked and carved with scales like a snake. Crusted salt in the grooves shone silver in the moonlight, and its ramming prow figurehead was a fanged serpent forged from the melted-down slag of enemy cannons.

Rose’s breath hitched. ‘By the Bearded Lady, I always forget how big it is.’

‘She’s a beast, sure enough,’ Jonny admitted as the brigantine’s cold shadow towered above them.

‘How in the world did a tight-fisted miser like Morrigan pay for this monster?’ Rose frowned. ‘That cheapskate bastard never paid a silver kraken if he could spend a copper sprat. I heard that skinflint always skipped out on his dues to the ocean, never even a drop of rum or a bronze coin for the deep’s lords ’n’ ladies.’

‘And ain’t that yet another reason for me to turn about and not set foot on its deck,’ Jonny muttered. ‘If even a smidgeon o’ that’s true, then this ’ere’s a doomed ship. The ocean needs its due, every captain knows that.’

Rose nodded. ‘I gifted a tri-barrelled carbine to the waters off White Harbour after claiming Abel Flint’s bounty.’

‘Aye, I remember.’ Jonny shook his head morosely. ‘Ye promised that beauty to me.’

Rose smiled. ‘Decent craftsmanship too. Weren’t a Rackham Manstopper, but it was pretty nice.’

Jonny scowled. ‘Eugh, now yer just bein’ cruel.’

‘A queen must be cruel to be kind, daaarling,’ Rose drawled in mock snootiness, as Jonny eased the rowboat up to several others moored beneath a wide cargo net strung from the bow. The tarred hull of the Moon Serpent rose up like a black cliff; dark silhouettes moved through the lamplight high above.

‘She’s sittin’ mighty high in the water fer such a big ship,’ Jonny remarked, nodding toward the mottled green tidelines staining the ship’s hull as he secured the boat.

Rose grinned. ‘Her holds will be empty and most of the crew ashore getting three sheets to the wind on whatever cheap rotgut Morrigan’s left them for his wake.”

‘Lucky buggers,’ Jonny grumbled, pulling the oars in from the rowlocks and lashing them along the gunwale. ‘You sure about this?’

Rose stepped over and gripped the cargo net, peering upward.

‘Nah, not really,’ she admitted. “But given the choice of going forward or back, a wise-woman once told me it’s always better to go forward. So c’mon!’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

We Own The Night (2000 words)

The rainstorm had passed barely an hour before, sweeping downriver and fading out over the choppy waves of Lyme Bay. Otterton glowed gold under the hazy street lamps, and silver puddles jewelled the deserted streets. Along the riverbank moonlight glittered on the wet shrubs, and an owl’s mournful cry echoed over the shivering reeds.

Vennik ignored it. The young fox hunkered down at the mouth of his den, for a vixen had screeched among the trees and set his hackles quivering. Lust corkscrewed through his belly and sank its claws deep. Then the shrill scream rose from the shadows again and he barked in reply.

Bushes rustled as she emerged, trotting under the kissing gate along the towpath and sniffing the air. Vennik’s heart sang; her coat was the lustrous reddish-brown of autumn beech leaves, her eyes two green leaves under the moonlight. The recent shower had lent her fur a pale sheen of silver, and her musky aroma soaked his senses. She was beautiful.

He uncurled and crept out from his refuge beneath gnarled oak roots. The vixen gazed evenly back. ‘And who’re you, young gent?’

Vennik swaggered before the vixen. ‘I’m your best suitor, milady.’ He twitched his brush. ‘You’ve a beautiful voice.’

Green eyes twinkled. ‘You’re that tod who hangs around the sports house downriver, aren’t you?’

Vennik preened his chest. ‘I am. You’re a smart girl, sweetheart. What gave me away?’

‘Those black tufts on your ears,’ she grinned, flashing teeth as white as hazelnut kernels. ‘That white star on your chest. And,’ she wrinkled her nose, ‘the stink from their rubbish bins. Real memorable.’ She padded into the shadow of the red sandstone cliffside and curled up.

Vennik blinked, his confidence wavering as he approached her. Don’t let her knock your game. Turn up the charm! ‘I’ll give you anything you desire.’ He flashed his most alluring smile, the kind that always made the local vixens giggle and flutter their eyelashes. ‘You name it, I’ll provide it.’

The vixen smiled and shook her head. ‘No need – I mean, thanks and everything – but it’s fine. I’m good.’

Down the towpath both foxes courted under the weeping willow. The vixen smirked as Vennik circled her. ‘Sweetheart.’ He stretched leisurely before her. ‘Honeydew. I’m the best suitor you’ll have. Anything you want. You ever dreamed of a mountain of scraps? There’s overflowing skips up by the three-topped oak. I can show you more food than you’ve ever seen!’ He sauntered back and forth, fully confident now. ‘You want to be safe and cosy? Come visit my den! It’s always warm and dry there. Fancy running under the stars with nobody to catch you? Come run with me! We’ll go anywhere you want!’ He sprang up onto a tree root. ‘All the humans are cooped up inside like chickens now. We’re kings of the roost here!’

The vixen just smiled. ‘Or queens.’

Vennik winced. ‘Or queens, yeah. Sorry.’ He cocked his head expectantly. ‘Well? How about it?’

She laughed. ‘Nah. Thanks again, but I’m fine. This here’s my liddle patch. Nowhere else I’d rather be.’

‘Oh.’ Think, you idiot, improvise! Vennik hopped down and pawed the earth. ‘Perhaps a mate to warm your lonely nights, then? You name it. Whatever you want.’

She shrugged. ‘Like I said, thanks. But I’m fine.’

Vennik frowned. ‘I don’t understand. All the other foxes I’ve met over the seasons, they’re all missing something. A fancy den. Plenty of food. A gorgeous vixen to share their bed – not that you’d want that, of course …’

She smiled. ‘I might. You shouldn’t just assume what others want. Oh, and don’t call me honeydew, or sweetheart, or any more silly lovey-dovey things. My name’s Fernsmoke.’

‘Oh.’ Vennik hung his head shamefaced, ears drooped. ‘You wanted a beautiful vixen, then? I’m so awfully sorry. I didn’t realise.’ He turned to leave.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘Just … just wait. Please.’

He looked up as Fernsmoke trotted to his side, her green eyes gentle. ‘You always feel the need to impress the ladies, huh?’

‘I …’ he hung his head. What in seven seasons is wrong with you, idiot? Where’s that charming confident fox the vixens all swoon over? ‘… I don’t know.’

Fernsmoke turned her head, nose twitching. ‘Hey, you hungry? Must be famished after all that sweet-talk. Fancy hunting some water rats?’

‘Uh …’ Actually, now she mentioned it, he was rather hungry. ‘Do you, er … know where they hide?’

‘Sure!’ She darted away with a flick of her brush. ‘Race you there!’

They scampered down the muddy towpath, Fernsmoke bounding ahead as she weaved through tree roots like a tongue of fire. Both foxes padded across the unmown meadow beside the slumbering street, moonlight silvering the wet grass as they passed. Soon they emerged onto the gravel footpath, a pale coil of stream stretched below them. A muddy streambank choked with broken reeds. Anxious squeaks echoed from the darkness.

Fernsmoke peered into the gloom. ‘C’mon, then!’

Vennik hesitated. ‘I don’t know …’

She turned to grin back at him. ‘Aww, you scared of the dark?’

‘No, I …’ Paws thrashing helplessly. Endless icy water. Choking. Sinking. Drowning. Not going near that can’t make me

‘Hey.’ Fernsmoke trotted back alongside him, nuzzling beneath his chin. ‘We don’t have to. Not if you don’t want. It’s okay.’

Focus, you idiot. It’s just a little bit of water. It ends. Eventually.

He stared at his paws, forcing the words out through gritted teeth. ‘I want to. I mean …’ Why is this so hard?

He looked up.

‘Help me. Please.’

They pressed on, squelching through the muck. The hiss of swaying reeds echoed all around them, a dull ceaseless rattle that prickled Vennik’s hackles. A frog croaked somewhere up ahead.

Cold dark wettrapped

‘I’m right here,’ Fernsmoke assured him. ‘I ain’t going nowhere.’

Ahead of them came the crackling whisper of many paws, the shrill squeaks of timid rodents. Dozens of yellow eyes leered from the shadows. Vennik’s narrowed his eyes and began to prowl. Big greasy rats sat up on their haunches then scattered. More and more scuttled away, squeaking with fright. Flushed full of bravado Vennik chased after them, snapping and driving his prey before him. This’ll show her! I’m the bravest fox there is!

‘Vennik, wait!’ Fernsmoke called after him. ‘It’s too risky! Stay together!’

‘Rubbish!’ he scoffed, bristling with triumph. ‘C’mon! Easy pickings here. Let’s have some fun!’

Suddenly a rat bumped into his foreleg, scrabbling past him. Another. Then another. All running towards him. Their eyes white with terror as they fled heedlessly past him. Icy dread crawled up his spine.

It’s not me they’re running from …

A low guttural snarl ahead. A brown stubby-eared head rose out of the reeds ahead, a limp rat hanging from its jaws. It dropped its prize and bared bloody fangs.


It hunkered low and hissed back at him, back arched, a scabby dark-furred brute with a scarred nose. Vennik stared, unease prickling his guts. This wasn’t right. Most vermin he faced fled from him immediately, screaming as they desperately sought to escape in vain. Always far smaller than him, and dumber, and frozen with blind terror anyway. He shook himself and launched forwards, jaws agape …

… and crunched only empty air.

Vennik blinked. His prey wasn’t there. He turned. The weasel had darted close beneath his paws. It nipped Vennik under the chin and vanished. He spun around. The weasel still wasn’t there. Vennik shook his head, lips peeled back in a snarl. Needle-sharp teeth sank into his brush. He twisted in confusion. He’d spent his life crunching prey that tried fleeing. But this prey stayed really close, far too close for him to get a good killing bite in. It didn’t run off like normal prey. This wasn’t fair! Pain lanced through his forepaw. He yelped and whirled around, snapping only darkness.

The weasel bared its fangs and chakkered with rage.

More weasels poured in – three, four, five, six! – clawing up Vennik’s legs and hanging off his back. He shook them off and tried to bite but they swarmed over him again, sharp-toothed, sinuous and bloodthirsty. Vennik trampled on weasels; he was pricked all over by sharp wicked fangs; he crunched one through the spine but still it clung on hissing angrily. He pushed through them down the streambank but the gang rippled after him, squealing with bloodlust. He was surrounded, tangled in wriggling sinewy bodies that scratched and bit and clawed; he sucked in a desperate lungful of air as the writhing flood overwhelmed him.

‘Help!’ he yelped.

And Fernsmoke’s screech shattered the darkness.

Something leapt over Vennik and suddenly the streambank was alive with weasels, nothing more than terrified squeaking weasels desperately fleeing a furious, snarling, spitting vixen. Fernsmoke clawed and ripped and snapped; weasels were bowled over as the russet shadow streaked after the scar-nosed leader. It screamed as Fernsmoke leapt upon it. Pain crashed through a blur of water, darkness and slime. Claws pinned it in the mud; again it squealed but Fernsmoke’s fangs crunched shut, and its squeal was instantly silenced.

Vennik untwisted with a snarl. He was free. His ears flattened. His eyes flashed blue fire.

He couldn’t think. He didn’t think. No more talk, no more flattery. Just feral savage instinct moved him now, right down deep in his roaring blood. He bared his teeth, for he was a fox and here were twitching squeaking things all around and so he did what he was born to do, what foxes always do best: he pounced

In a few furious minutes it was all over. The reeds echoed with the weasels’ distant wails. Fernsmoke padded close to nose-nuzzle. ‘You okay?’

Vennik tottered forwards, wincing from a dozen wounds. ‘Agh. I’ve had worse.’ He licked her cheek. ‘Thanks for rescuing me.’ He sank to the floor, groaning with relief as Fernsmoke began licking his wounds clean. ‘Reckon that’s enough showing off, eh?’

She sniggered and nibbled his ear. ‘All right, crazy cub. Now I’m impressed.’ She nudged a rat’s limp corpse towards him. ‘Dig in!’

Hunger sated, they trotted back down the moonlit towpath, squelching through the mud as the marshes hissed alongside them. Distant gulls wailed over the river, and above them lay a velvet sky jewelled with stars. Fernsmoke padded through the trees across the tarmac road deeper into Pynes Wood, flitting through the shadows as she quickened her pace. ‘C’mon. Got something to show you!’ Her white-tagged brush swished through the gloom ahead as Vennik followed. A family of frightened coots huddled in their nests, and among the reeds below White Bridge Shragg the heron tucked his beak beneath a grey wing and slept, dining on dream eels.

Fernsmoke halted before a gnarled oak, blushing back at Vennik. ‘Well … this is me.’

Gazing about him, Vennik marvelled at the vixen’s simple life. Her cosy den safe beneath the tangled roots. The rabbit runs across the ploughed field, all within easy distance. The delicious scent of prey made his mouth water.

Except …

‘Your life’s good,’ he admitted, ‘but you’ve nobody to share it with. Don’t you ever get lonely?’

Fernsmoke shrugged. ‘No. Why would I?’

Vennik frowned at his paws. ‘This ain’t right,’ he muttered. ‘Animals always want things. Everyone’s hungry for something more. A mate. Food. A warm shelter for cold winter nights.’

‘Not me. I’ve already got everything I need, right here.’

‘Then what do I do?’

Fernsmoke thought for a moment, then brightened. ‘Can you clear away those leaves outside? They’re a real nuisance whenever it gets windy.’

Vennik gawped at her. ‘Am I just your den cleaner, then?’

‘Nope. Just something useful you could do while I fetch us dinner.’ She turned and vanished into the bushes.

Biting back his grumblings, Vennik swept the damp leaves behind the oak with his brush. Eventually Fernsmoke reappeared, dragging a sodden plastic bag in her jaws. Dumping it before her den entrance, she slumped to the ground with a huff.

Vennik nuzzled her ear. ‘Tired, milady?’

Fernsmoke licked his cheek. ‘Nah, just sore. Fancy giving an old fleabag a rub-down?’

He smiled and crouched over her, kneading her shoulders with his paws as she sighed contentedly. Then she opened her eyes and gazed up at him.

‘Sorry I never asked … what about you? What do you want?’

Vennik curled his brush tenderly around her, and she snuggled her head against his chest with a purr of relief.

‘It’s okay,’ he murmured, ‘I’m good.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hellhunter (8/8)

Owen steps out of Andrei’s house again ten long minutes later, and sees a cluster of townspeople gathered outside. A few red-uniformed soldiers limp among them with bloody arms and bandaged heads. Walking wounded. One of them leads Roach by the bridle. Maria herself is out in front, Stefan trudging alongside with one arm draped over her shoulder.

The survivors from Maria’s cellar, with the tattered remnants of Andrei’s militia. Maybe two or three dozen, tops. Out of a town of hundreds.

But they’re alive. That’s something.

Owen stands absolutely still, completely numb, frozen to the bone, blinking in the moonlight, arms hanging limp as he gazes unseeingly into the night. Maria slows and waits twenty paces away, a cautious respectful distance.

As if she’d already known.

And dreaded.

Owen blinks one last time, scrubs a hand over his bruised face and walks over toward them. Maria hesitates, opens her mouth to ask but stops, once, twice, before finally forcing it out on the third try.

‘Is Paul in there?’ she whispers.

Owen nods. ‘Yes. What’s left.’

She flinches. ‘You sure?’

‘His shoes are in there.’

‘After all these years missing? You sure they’re his?’

‘Just like you said. Blue velvet. Silver buckles.’

‘They must be all mouldy by now.’

‘Only a bit. It’s dry in there.’

Maria falls silent. She stares towards the trees, just past the lodge, as if she can’t bear to look directly at it. She’s completely still, but her hands are clenched. Her knuckles white.

‘Can …’ she falters, then composes herself. ‘Can you tell what happened?’

‘No,’ Owen lies. He’s no mortician. But he’s seen enough twisted horrors over the years, and he knew enough of the lowest depths of depravity humans could sink to.

And he can guess.

Maria’s jaw clenches. She steps forward. ‘I should go look.’

He grips her arm. ‘Don’t.’

She pulls free, glaring. ‘I have to.’

Please don’t.’

‘But I want to.’

‘Better if you don’t.’

‘You can’t stop me. You’ve no right to stop me!’

‘I know. I’m asking, that’s all. Please don’t look.’

‘I have to.’

‘Better not.’

‘I don’t have to listen to you!’

Owen takes her trembling hands. ‘Then listen to him instead. Listen to Paul. Pretend he grew up instead. Imagine what he would’ve grown into. He wouldn’t have been a baker or a carpenter. He loved flowers, right? He loved bright colours. He would’ve been a painter or a poet. An artist. A bright, smart, creative person. In love with life. Its simple beauties. Full of common sense, full of wisdom, and worried for you. He’d look at you now and shake his head and smile fondly and say: c’mon Mum, do what the nice man’s asking.’

‘You think?’

‘He’d say: Mum, trust me on this.’

‘But I have to see. After all these years of not knowing. Of fearing the worst.’

‘Better if you don’t.’

She struggles in his grip, almost frantic. ‘It’s just his shoes, for Christ’s sake!’

Owen shakes his head sadly. ‘It’s not just his shoes.’

‘It’s been three long years. What else can be left?’

‘No,’ Owen’s voice is weary with resignation, his words scraped raw and hollow. ‘I mean … it’s not just his shoes.’

Maria freezes. She stands stock still for five whole minutes, her face stricken in betrayal. Horror. Guilt. Owen stands close before her, hoping he’s blocking her view of the lodge, happy to keep on standing there for as long as it takes, ten hours, ten days, ten years, forever, anything to stop her venturing inside that sickening house of horrors. Her bleak gaze is a thousand miles away, her lips moving silently as if rehearsing arguments. Look or don’t look. Know or don’t know.

Eventually she drags her numbed gaze back to his. ‘How … how many shoes are in there?’

‘About twenty pairs.’

‘No!’ And suddenly she slips from his grasp and crumples to her knees, her head thrown back, wailing in abject despair. As one Stefan and two townswomen step forward and kneel to wrap their arms around her, rubbing her back tenderly, patting her heaving shoulders. Comforting a grieving mother as best they can. Eventually her sobs trail off into broken muffled sniffles, tears pouring down her stricken face.

One of the merchants edges forward, face twisted in misery as his wife shuffles behind. ‘Our youngest daughter Elena, she had these lovely green satin shoes, did you …’ he trails off.

Owen nods. ‘They’re inside.’

‘Oh … God!’ The mother turns away, burying her face in her hands as her husband holds her close.

Owen sighs heavily. ‘Two or three children a year, probably. Andrei got a taste for it. A gnawing hunger. An itch he couldn’t scratch. There are no ghosts here. Ghosts don’t exist. The kids who all vanished in the night? They never left. Andrei made sure of that. A predator always finds his prey.’

Stefan gapes at him, aghast. ‘He kept them? All their shoes? He robbed their bodies and just dumped them in there?’

‘Not dumped. Displayed. Empty shoes laid out on these white cloth shelves set in the walls. Like shrines. Souvenirs. Mementos.’ Owen clenches his fists, seething with impotent rage. ‘Like trophies.’

There’s a long, dreadful pause.

Maria struggles to her feet, flapping the others’ hands away. ‘I should go look.’

Owen blocks her path. ‘You’ll hate yourself for it. All your life. You’d wish you hadn’t.’

You looked.’

‘And I regret it. Now I wish I’d never gone inside.’

Maria falls silent again. She sighs raggedly, gazing out towards the whispering trees. Then she turns to him. ‘Tell me about the empty shoes. On their little white shelves.’

Owen shakes his head firmly. ‘Not a chance in Hell.’

‘No, I mean … I need to know they prove Andrei did it. Like evidence. I need you to tell me that. Before we do anything else.’

‘He did it,’ Owen growls. ‘No doubt at all.’

Maria scrubs a hand across her eyes. ‘What now?’

He raises open palms. ‘Entirely your choice.’

‘What would you do?’

‘Not my decision to make.’

‘Tell. Me.’

Owen sighs heavily. ‘I’d go inside, and I’d set the place on fire, and burn it down to the ground until there’s nothing but ashes left. Just dusty old books and a madman’s sick trophies in there.’

‘And the spike pit? In the woods?’

‘Leave it alone. Never go out there ever again. Let the wildflowers grow right over their bones. Besides they’re not really there. Not anymore. They’re always here’ – he taps his forehead – ‘and here.’ He places a hand over his heart. ‘The good memories never leave you.’

I’m sorry, he aches to tell her. I thought he was decent, too. You should’ve known better than to trust my judgment. I let myself think people weren’t petty, evil and cruel. I let myself get coaxed into friendship again like a stray cat who’s offered pitiful scraps. Not anymore. This is why I always assume the worst of everyone, so I don’t fuck up this royally ever again. He takes a breath, but he can’t tell her any of that, and anyway he’s learned enough to know it would never comfort her, never fill the gaping chasm of devastation scraped raw inside her. Because he had trusted Andrei too. Spoken to him like a friend, joked with him, helped him, would have saved his life if he’d had the chance. Another reminder of why he’s acted the way he did for so long, wandering the countryside alone, closed off and suspicious, never trusting anyone, because people are shit in this stinking cesspool of human misery.

You shouldn’t trust people, he wants to say, and also to fall on his knees and plead Please don’t ever stop trusting people, Maria. I’m so sorry. Please don’t ever stop believing the best in people, rather than seeing only their worst as I have. Please don’t ever stop being kind, and trusting, and hopeful, and brave, and good. Please don’t let me have ruined you. I’m sorry, Maria, so very sorry.

He reaches for her hand. She won’t unclench her trembling fists, but her hand lingers near his, at least, and she doesn’t pull away when he steps towards her. ‘I want to leave here. Now,’ she declares, her voice a fraying rope about to snap. ‘And never come back.’

The world settles back into the old familiar shape Owen knows so intimately well, the ugly lack of mercy, the predictable pattern of petty cruelty. He can practically hear it click snugly into place in his head. No good guys, no heroes riding in to save the day — only the small precious space you staked out as your own and protected from all outward threats by any means necessary. He breathes against the tightness in his aching ribs and reminds himself that this is how things work, this was how they’ve always worked.

Maria raises her chin, eyes finally dried. Mastering her grief. Making herself brave. ‘I’ve been thinking.’

‘Great,’ he mutters, just to rile her up.

She shoves his shoulder – ‘You have to be nice to me, idiot. I’m traumatised’ – and he feels a sudden bone-deep surge of fondness for just how full of horseshit she is.

He rolls his eyes but indulges her. ‘What have you been thinking, Maria?’

‘I’ve been thinking … that you did a good deed here, after all.’

‘Oh yeah? Which one?’

But now she flashes him a dangerous glare, the one growling don’t you dare belittle me, the one that means her feelings are dangerously on the verge of being genuinely hurt if he keeps on dismissing her. So he dampens down his weary cynicism and forces himself to listen to her. ‘You couldn’t save all the people of Reikstadt. Nobody could. But Owen … you nearly died closing the portal to Hell.’ She prods him sternly in the chest. Ouch, ribs. Ouch. ‘And. You. Closed it.’ She sighs and presses herself close to him, rubbing his back tenderly. ‘What … what would’ve happened if you’d lost?’

Owen honestly hadn’t given much thought to it, not with all the running and fighting and killing, the dying screams echoing through his head, the way her grey-flaked hair tickles his nose, now smelling only of ash. ‘Dunno.’

‘It would’ve stayed permanently open, right? A gaping doorway into Hell. Forever.’

‘Probably, yeah.’

‘And the Devil would have risen to scorch the earth anew.’

‘S’pose so.’

‘And unleashed an army full of those nightmares you fought. First overrunning Wallachia. Then rampaging across the entire world. Thousands of innocents would have needlessly died. Millions.’

‘I … I guess so.’ He hadn’t considered it quite this way before. He’s always tried to concentrate on one life-or-death situation at a time. Sweat the small stuff first. Save one person, then (hopefully) the next and the next. Keep a low profile. Don’t ruffle feathers. Try not to get chased out of town with torches and pitchforks. Kill one demon. Then another when it bares its ugly face. Start small, then think bigger. Save one village. Then its neighbour. Rinse and repeat. Simple is always best.

‘Christ.’ He scrubs a hand through his hair, suddenly overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. ‘I just wanted a beer, for God’s sake. Just passing through. I was planning to leave anyway. I would’ve.’

‘But you didn’t.’

‘But I meant to.’

‘But you didn’t. That’s what counts.’ Maria caresses his cheek. ‘So you saved the world. Again.’ She sweeps an arm towards the huddled knot of survivors, men and women alike ground down to nothing but flint, yet still standing tall. A few children peek out shyly towards them. ‘You saved our world. You saved our tomorrows. And … and you bought us closure. Remember that.’

He strokes her brow, wiping away a smear of ash. ‘Does thinking that help you feel better? Make all the hurt worth it?’

She sighs, gazing out over the charred smoking ruins of a dead town. ‘Not really. Not always. But it’s good to keep things in perspective.’

‘Wow,’ Owen deadpans. ‘That’s deep. Whoever knew you could ever be so sensible?’

She balls her hand into a loose fist and pushes gently at his jaw, miming an affectionate punch. ‘I’m being serious, dumbass. A real hero’s not someone who always wins, who always saves the day. It’s someone who takes the hard hits, who gets knocked down’ – her eyes glow with fond pride – ‘and who always gets back up.’

Owen blushes, taking Roach’s reins. ‘So … what’s your plan now?’

Maria sighs. ‘Lead these people to another town far away, someplace west. Argesh, maybe. Gildova. It’ll be a long hard road, but we’ll manage.’ She glances at Stefan, who nods. ‘Somewhere safe these children can build a future.’ Then she squeezes Owen’s shoulder. ‘But I don’t think that’s really your thing, is it?’

Settling in one place? Putting down roots? Starting a family? Eugh. Owen pulls a face, and Maria smiles. ‘You ain’t finished yet, are you?’ She gestures to the crowd of survivors. ‘You did good here. So why stop now?’

Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Stop what, for God’s sake?’

Maria rests her head against his shoulder. ‘This! What you’re doing! Roaming the countryside, killing monsters and rescuing people. Continuing your family’s work. As crazy as it sounds, this entire fucked-up nightmare was just what you needed.’ She kisses his cheek. ‘You’ve rediscovered yourself. It’s what you were born for. And I think you ought to see it through.’

Owen nods uncertainly. ‘… Okay. Makes sense, I guess.’ He mulls it over, then smiles. ‘Spent far too long reacting to things, getting bounced around from one fuck-up to the next. If I’m gonna get killed someday, I’d rather choose it head-on than find myself tricked into it by someone else. Better I go my own way.’

Maria pats his hand. ‘I’m glad you think so.’

He grins back. ‘I’m not completely stupid, eh?’

Her smile is way too smug. ‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘Ha ha, very funny.’ He rolls his eyes as she giggles.

Stefan squeezes his arm, looking concerned. ‘Are you all right, though?’

Owen snorts. ‘Yeah. I’ll be okay. Just need about a month’s sleep, a brand new body and a bucket of beer.’ Roach trots forward and nuzzles Owen’s forehead, nibbling at his hair. Owen grips her mane and mounts up, his whole body aching for a rest.

Maria takes his hand, her thumb tenderly stroking his bruised knuckles. ‘Take care, Owen.’ Behind her Stefan throws a crooked salute, grinning through his battered face.

Owen smiles back. ‘You too.’ He digs in his heels and Roach moves off, plodding wearily through the smouldering devastation as the townsfolk recede into the distance far behind.

On the open road again, he thinks. Back into the wilderness. Silence and stillness all around. Just chilly air and a night mist falling, its pale tendrils curling through the treetrunks. He reaches the half-rotten signpost at the muddy crossroads and pauses.

Which way now? To his left lies the Kingsroad, a straight shot ninety miles west across desolate floodplain and barren farmland, three hard days’ ride all the way towards Targoviste. Back to civilisation. The Belmont Manor. Home. To his right lie dismal fog-shrouded pine forests pockmarked with squalid isolated villages, the cold shadow of Krystan Pass, onward through the gloomy foothills of the Icepeaks to the port city of Braila, fully two hundred miles east.

Decision time.

Right or left? East or west? Braila or Targoviste?

He takes a deep breath. Squares his shoulders. Flicks Roach’s reins and turns right.

And heads east. Into the wild.

© 2021 | Tom Burton