Outside of the inn window, slate grey skies stretched as far as the eye could see. A dampness clung to everything that promised rain before the day was over. But none of that deterred the sailors who crawled all over the ships and the docks like so many ants on a hill. Calls from the rigging were lost to the mists, only heard by the crew within immediate proximity.
Down in the main room, breakfast was being served. A hearty meal of stew and ale to bolster those who were to board any one of those ships that were preparing to cast off. Distantly, some part of me knew that I should already be making my way to the docks, but I lingered in the small, haggard room. If he wasn’t there in the next few minutes, I was going to have to leave without him.
The seconds ticked by on the ancient pocket watch that I held in my hand. Through the window, I could see the ship that I had booked passage with the night before. The captain hadn’t looked twice under the hood of my cloak when I handed him the heavy purse that secured a small room and his secrecy. Seven, the captain had said, and not a moment after. They would wait for no one, no matter how much gold they had.
I wrapped my cloak tighter around my body, though it did nothing for the chill that crept along my skin. He was not going to make it.
I gathered the saddle bags and the small suitcase I had brought with me and made my way down to the main floor to close my tab with the inn keeper. I checked the watch again, not wanting to make this crossing alone and not wanting to accept what it meant that he wasn’t here yet.
The inn keeper accepted the coins without even looking my way. I pushed my way through the crowd of patrons waiting to secure a room for the night and set off as quickly as I dared for the rickety ship. No one looked my way as I walked through the port town. I was hardly the only cloaked figure trying to fend off the mist and bitter wind.
I had followed his instructions to the letter.
Look for the ship called The Frost Fire, the captain doesn’t ask questions. Book a room at the Blind Raven, the inn keeper is loyal to a fault. Do not wait to cast off. Take the ship no matter what. Get the hell out of this country.
The crew was ready to pull the gangplank when I raced up it, earning several glares from the men who stood at the rail. I didn’t say a word as I made my way down the railing to the bow. My eyes strained as I tried in vain to see if anyone else was racing for the ship. My pulse pounded higher and higher with each order given by the captain that had the ship casting off from the dock.
No figure appeared out of the mist. There was no call to wait from the dock. Just the shouts of the crew as the ship made its way to deeper waters.
I stayed at the bow as long as I could, until the port faded from view. My heart cracked in two when the oars were raised and the sails dropped. For the first time in my life, I was on my own.
“First time making the crossing, my lady?” came a rough voice from behind me.
I spun to see the captain standing behind me, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, the other tucked behind his back. “It is,” I replied.
“Not a crossing to be making alone,” he said unnecessarily. Oh, didn’t I know it. “Only those who are running from something make this crossing.”
I had heard every tale and legend there was about this particular crossing. From the Old World to the New; by way of New Orleans. And he was right, only those who were running risked passage this time of year to such a city without protection.
“You wouldn’t be running from something, now would ya? No master I should be returning you to,” he said, a hint of a smile spreading across his face. He held up both hands, palms facing me, when I shot him a glare. “Not that I would, mind you. Just wonderin’ if I should forget what I saw.”
“And how much more would that cost me,” I spat at him.
“The purse you gave me was enough, my lady,” he said, his hand resting on the hilt again. “You are not the first to be desperate enough to make this crossing. And you won’t be the last.”
I turned back to the fading shoreline. Desperate didn’t cover it.
I wiped my eyes and made my way down to the room I had booked. The small, cramped space had a cot built into the side of the ship, a trunk, a washstand and a cracked mirror. The porthole was wide open, presumably to air out the room. I dropped my bags on the foot of the bed and sank down on the edge, my head in my hands.
The salt from my tears mingled with the salt in the air. Crying wouldn’t do me any good, but I couldn’t stop the tears now that I had let them fall. I don’t know how long I sat like that, letting my grief take control of me. It wasn’t until there was a gentle knock at the cabin door that I realized any significant time had passed.
“If you want a meal, miss, now is the time,” the sailor at my door informed me. A giant bear of a man, but his rough voice was gentle as he held his hat in his hands, his head slightly bowed.
I looked at the watch again. “A little early for an evening meal?”
“Forgive me, miss, but you don’t want to be out of your cabin after dark,” he said, his eyes not meeting my face.
I swallowed the urge to ask why. None of the tales had ever mentioned that. Instead, I said, “I’m not hungry.”
“It’s a long time til morning, miss,” he said.
My stomach picked that exact moment to make its hunger known. I pushed a fist against my abdomen, wondering if I truly could hold out until morning. When it rumbled again, I gave in. “Show me the way, Mr…”
“Bishop, miss. Just Bishop.”
I tried my best to smile and gestured for him to lead the way.
Bishop led me down the hall and down two more flights of stairs that creaked ominously, to the galley. Sailors and a few more passengers sat on stained benches at the two long tables. I couldn’t stop myself from stepping closer to Bishop as he let me towards what passed as food and then to a table, allowing him to carry a plate for me. I didn’t hesitate to sit next to him, at the end of one of the tables.
The other passengers could pass as part of the crew. Rough and wary, they all kept one eye on the room and one eye on their plates. I had just forced the first bite of some type of meat that I didn’t not want to try to identify when a broad-shouldered man stomped down the stairs to retrieve two plates.
In the dim interior of the galley, I couldn’t make out much more than the man’s size and that his clothing was slightly better than the crew that sat round me. A glimmer of candlelight reflecting off of a blade at his waist caught my eye. The man was armed just as the captain was.
“The first mate,” Bishop whispered next to me.
That made sense. The only man on the ship who was as clean as the captain was. I bit down on my lip to fight the tears that threatened to fall again. Gone were the days of finer clothing and delicious foods. Just weeks ago, I would have looked down my nose at everyone on this ship, the captain and first mate included.
I choked down what I could, then waited for Bishop to finish, nodding politely when he silently asked if he could finish my plate. A man his size certainly could use the extra rations. When he was finished, he led me back to my cabin and stood outside the door once I opened it.
He twisted his hat in his hands again. “Please, miss, close the porthole and bar the door,” he indicated a solid length of wood that leaned on the wall next to the door. “Don’t come out until morning. No matter what you hear. Please, miss, you must promise me.”
I frowned at the piece of wood. This was a little too much. I opened my mouth to say as much, but the fear and pleading in his soft brown eyes stopped me. “I promise,” I whispered.
That must have been enough. Bishop bowed slightly and turned to walk back down the hall. I did what I had promised. I closed and barred the door, then closed and locked the porthole. With naught much else to do, I stretched out on the thin bed and stared at the roof of my cabin.
Some time later, a beam of moonlight poured through my little porthole. Peering through the glass, I could see stars above, but I could not see the water below beneath the unnatural fog that covered it. I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone rattled my door.
The first rattle was as if someone was testing that it was locked, then stronger when they realized that it was indeed barred. I clamped a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream when it sounded like claws were being raked down the door.
All I had was the dagger that he had given me, tucked away in the saddle bags at the foot of the little bed. I didn’t dare to move, lest whomever was on the other side of the door realize that I was in the room.
“I can smell you, girl,” a low, gravely voice drawled from the other side of the door.
Above me, footsteps thundered over the worn boards of the deck. A roar shook the ship, and someone yelled to drop the sails. A moment later, I was thrown sideways as the ship picked up speed. I slumped down in the corner of the cabin, as far from the door as I could get, and listened as people above ran back and forth, and something hit the sides of the boat over and over.
Through it all, I didn’t hear a single cannon fire or a gunshot. Only the occasional roar and the crew calling to each other back and forth. I held the ancient pocket watch in a fist and watched the door the entire night, unwilling to close my eyes.
Somewhere around dawn, the noises stopped and daylight began to peak through the porthole, the skies slate grey once more. I desperately needed to use the bucket in the other corner of the cabin, but I was too terrified to move.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when someone knocked on my door.
“Miss?” Bishop called from the other side of the door. “Miss, if you be wantin’ breakfast, it’s bein’ served.”
I made myself get up and take shaking steps towards the door. “Just a moment,” I managed to say through the crack in the door. I forced myself to see to my needs and to rinse my mouth out with water from the pitcher on the stand. It was just a nightmare, I told myself as I went through a semblance of my routine. I must have fallen asleep right after dinner and dreamed all of it.
When I was finished, I opened the door to find Bishop, standing in the hallway just as he had the night before, looking down at his feet. But something caught my eye as I turned to follow him down the hall. Those were very real gouges in my door.
“I’m pleased to see you made it through the night, miss,” Bishop said from in front of me.
Shaking, I could only nod as I fisted my hands at my side and forced myself to keep following him instead of running screaming back to my cabin and locking myself inside for the remainder of the trip.
“You don’t need to worry, miss,” Bishop was saying. “Long as you are with me, none of them will bother you.”
Breakfast was apparently being served on the deck. Bishop led me up into the salty air and towards the bow of the ship. I couldn’t help but notice something wrapped in white and stained red being heaved over the side as we walked across the deck.
“Keep walkin’, miss,” Bishop told me. He must have known I was ready to bolt again.
At the bow, Bishop shared an apple and some hard tack with me, as far away from the rest of the crew as we could get. My mind swirled with questions. Why weren’t we eating below? What was it that they threw overboard? What did I hear the night before?
But I didn’t voice a single one of them. Not as I watched the rest of the crew sneaking glances our way as we ate. I watched for the other passengers to make their way onto the deck. Eventually, I saw two of them appear at the top of the stairs, looking as terrified as I felt. Clearly, they had barred their doors the night before just as I had. But that left two other passengers unaccounted for.
“Where are the other passengers?” I asked Bishop.
He watched the two men warily make their way towards us. “Best not to be askin’ about that, miss,” he said quietly.
The two men fished a couple of apples out of an open barrel and huddled next to the rail. When they noticed us, they crept closer until they were close enough to whisper.
“Did you,” one of them started.
Bishop cut the man off with a shake of his head. “You can stay on deck this mornin’, miss,” he said, turning to me. “But you stay in my sight, you hear?”
I nodded, not daring to disobey him after he had obviously saved my life last night. When he was gone, the older of the two men spoke again.
“I heard the stories, but I didn’t believe’em,” he said, still as pale as death.
“What stories?” I asked, wondering if they had heard the same tales that I had.
He turned to look at me. “Only a fool takes this passage so close to Samhain. Demons prowl these waters.”
“Demons run this ship,” his companion whispered.
“I have never seen a woman take this passage,” the first man said, looking towards me finally, daring to take his eyes off of the crew. “What in the hell made you risk this? Surely there is nothing in your life so bad that you would risk death and demons to reach New Orleans.”
I watched the very human looking crew move about the deck. Even the captain and first mate, standing at the wheel, looked for all the world like any other men I had seen all of my life. But if I had learned anything in my short time on this earth, the scariest monsters could indeed be only men.
When I didn’t answer, the older man continued. “Me, I faced the gallows. Killed the man that defiled my daughter. Left her mind broken, he did. The priest sent her to the asylum. She’s all I had in this world.”
I pulled my hood further down over my face.
“The men who was here were magistrates,” the younger man said. “Looking for some lady who run out on her betrothed. That duke was right mad, they said. Rumor has it that she run off with her lover and made for New Orleans. ‘Course that’s nonsense. They probably fled East. That’s where I’d go.”
“How do they know it was her lover?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
“Well, she ran off with a man, didn’t she?” the older man said. “Why else would a young noble lady run off with a man if he weren’t her lover?”
“Bah, waste of resources,” the younger man said, his voice getting stronger. “Let them be, I say. If she wants to give up that posh life and those riches for some bastard, let her.”
I ground my teeth. He was no bastard and he certainly was not my lover.
“Mighty large bounty, though,” the older man said. “Said her father will pay twice her weight in gold to get her back.”
My blood ran cold. How had magistrates already made it to the ship before I had. Had he been caught? Did he sell me out?
“Not worth it, I say,” the younger man said confidently. “If a woman runs away from a marriage like that, I reckon she does it for a reason. Lover or not.”
I didn’t hear the rest of what they said. I stared out across the deck, not really seeing anything as the day passed. I shared another light meal with Bishop as the light shifted across the water and the daylight began to fade.
Bishop led me to my cabin once again, and once more pulled the promise from me to bar my door and seal the porthole.
This time, I sat on the bed and listened, trying to pick apart each noise that I heard. When footsteps sounded down the hall again, I braced myself for the rattling of my door. Instead, a deep, guttural growl sounded just outside of the door. The footsteps halted and something growled back. After a moment, the footsteps retreated, and I was left in silence once more.
Roars, howls and thuds against the wood filled the night, but sleep would not be denied again. I woke to a soft knock on my door and Bishop calling to me from the other side.
That morning, two splashes sounded as I walked past the main mast with Bishop on our way to the bow. We ate our breakfast alone. The crew stayed away from me yet again as I sat where he had placed me for the day. I couldn’t help but wonder what had possessed my companion to instruct me to take this ship. Or if he knew exactly what he was doing.