The tales of an unapologetic nerd
Friends, what a rough year it has been. And hey, it's only ... *checks calendar* ... APRIL.
Most of you are probably stuck at home right about now, enjoying the panic and anxiety of Covid-induced quarantine. And for those of you that aren't, all those in essential lines of work, I would like to THANK YOU for all you do. Genuinely, from the bottom of my heart.
Now, whether you are safe in isolation or out in the field, I thought a little sneak peek of my next book would be just the thing to take your mind off all the world's troubles for awhile. If you're a member of my mailing list, CONGRATS! You got to see this chapter EARLY! And if not, hey! What a time to sign up!
Either way, I'm thrilled to have you here. I've been spending my time here at home working hard on finishing Kingmaker (The Mapweaver Chronicles: Scroll IV) in time for a Summer release! So please, take a load off. Sit for awhile, and enjoy this first chapter for free.
Chapter One: Portside Whispers
The songs in port were different these days. An unnatural, discomfiting quiet had fallen over every seaside town in the Known World, filling the corners of those places that played host to sailors and pirates alike. The familiar air of jubilant celebration and reckless abandon that usually accompanied shore leave was gone, replaced by a shadow of uncertainty and fear. There were no drunken songs ringing out from packed taverns, or inebriated laughter of eager men with pretty women on their arms filling the streets. No proud captains threw lavish parties on board their docked vessels, as was once a popular custom after a successful adventure. Now, every ship sat empty and abandoned in their slips each night. And the only sound out of doors was the whistling wind, flitting through the graveyard of still masts and creaking lumber.
Something had changed. Something in the very nature of the sea that had every ship spooked, no matter where they sailed, and no matter where they docked. From veteran sailors to stowaway cabin boys, everyone who called the sea “home” could feel the shift in the winds. And so, each night, where revelry had once filled city streets and portside nightmarkets, silence fell. Every pub and tavern was full, but eerily still. Captains sat with their back to the walls nightly, and yet still they glanced over their shoulders as if waiting for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on. Drinks were ordered in whispered voices, food consumed quickly and quietly. Even nightly gambling games of dice and cards were suspended as every patron simply waited.
And then, the stories began. It was common for men of the sea to tell stories of their adventures. Even those on opposite sides of the law acknowledged a certain truce in most seaside taverns. The King’s Navy would often tip their hats to the pirates as they spun yarns of narrow escapes and stolen treasure. And the pirates, in their turn, would cheer on the reports of another ship being brought to justice, if only for the night. All knew the promise of enmity would return once they were out to sea again. But the companionship of those who made their lives at sea was, in a way, unbreakable. Each side would acknowledge a common enemy in the weather, and a common ally in the fairer tides, if only for the length of a drink or two.
But not these days, and not for quite some time. Tonight’s tales, like every other night for months now, were not about shipboard conquests or facing down storms. The sailors only spoke of the change.
“Another island went missing,” one pirate said, staring into his glass with a haunted look. “Up and disappeared, in the middle of the night.”
Behind him, the naval captain nursing his own drink leaned over in his chair to join the conversation. “Are you certain?” the captain asked, but his tone said he already knew the answer.
“Our heading was true,” the pirate confirmed. “It was an island we knew, and knew well.”
“A hidden treasure cache?”
Both men drank, and had not so much as lowered their tankards again when another man spoke up. This one a grizzled, older sailor from a crew seated across the room.
“There was another one turned up in the middle of nowhere last week,” he said, and his fellows nodded in agreement. “Nothing big, mind, but definitely there. Trees and all. Only, it weren’t there when we passed by the same scrap of ocean a fortnight before. And it weren’t on any of the maps!”
There were grunts of acknowledgment all throughout the room. Everyone had seen something like that in the past weeks or months. And none of it could be readily explained. Not that they hadn’t tried. Pirates and sailors both were, by nature, a superstitious people. Anything from a foul wind to a torn sail could be blamed on some harbinger of bad luck. Scapegoats were often chosen among the crew, or sacrifices made to the gods. For nearly a year, the men and women who lived and died by the sea had tried everything they knew: crewmen had been cast off or abandoned at port in hopes of appeasing some island deity. Cleansing rituals had been performed on almost every ship that sailed, and desperate prayers were made to Farran, the god of all pirates.
If only any of it had made a difference. The winds continued to blow sour and strange. Prayers went unanswered, and seemingly no amount of sacrifices could turn the tides back in their favor.
Where once the air in port had been filled with shanties, pipe music, and the playful shriek of fiddle strings, the only songs sung now were heavy and dark. They were funeral dirges, or laments and apologies to lovers far away. They were ocean hymns, pleading to Farran, begging that he might shatter whatever illusion had been cast over the seas. Even now, the low hum of A Dead Man’s Tune fell over the tavern like a fog as the barkeep sang quietly to himself.
I could have been a miner
And kept these bones at home
To wake up by my lady love
And never dream to roam
But I became a sailor
And took to open seas
Now comes the day death sails my way
To bend me to my knees
“Anyone else encounter the cold yet?” asked one pirate. The answering shudder that filled the room was instantaneous, and made the very candles shake in their holders.
“We had ice,” said another. “Thick, unmelting ice, clinging to our hull for days.”
“It happened to us when we lost our island,” the first pirate spoke up once more, finally finishing his drink. “A freezing mist filled the air, and the very seas beneath us froze solid. By the time we could sail again, it was gone. Disappeared into the chill.”
“Some demon of ice and snow is out there,” growled one of his companions. “Something throwing off the natural order of things. Something the gods themselves can’t save us from.”
“Let’s not be rash,” said the doctor, standing and holding out his hand placatingly. “None of us have been hurt, have we? Whatever it is, it doesn’t want us.”
“That island was filled with supplies, as well as gold!” said the first pirate, standing as well and staring down the doctor. “Without those waypoints, people could starve. And besides that, how long do you think until the cold gets too deep, and burns away our skin?” He took another step forward, glaring at the other man. “Have you ever been trapped at sea in the dead of winter? Nothing but grey and fog everywhere you turn? When you’re lucky if you only lose a finger to frostbite, and not something more important?”
“I’d imagine if you had a proper medic on board, that wouldn’t be as much of a concern,” sneered the doctor. “Pity you sail under your own flag, pirate. I suppose that’s the risk you pay, living on the wrong side of the King’s law.”
In an instant, a dozen pirates were on their feet. “Living under a tyrant’s thumb, you mean?” growled the first pirate, holding off his companions with a wave of his hand. “Unlike you, we don’t need the crown’s blood to keep our coffers full.”
“No, you just spill its blood instead,” said the doctor. “Couldn’t be content with making an honest wage under a generous king, you had to be free.” A smug smile spread across the doctor’s face as he whispered, “And where has that freedom gotten you, you scurvy-ridden waste of a sailor?”
There had been tension in the air for almost a year. A year of waiting for something else to go wrong, waiting for something bigger than an island to disappear. The threat of some unknown curse hung over every pirate and naval officer like a cloud, and put each one of them on edge. Now, like a persistent wave finally collapsing a poorly-made breakwater, the emotions crested and shattered.
Everyone reached for their blades. Shouted insults were hurled across the room like
harpoons, each side blaming the other for the cursed seas and the unexplained cold. Every ounce of fear bubbled to the surface, and within moments it was clear: these men meant to tear each other apart.
There was a loud bang, as the barkeep finished his work and slammed a now-clean tankard onto the counter top. All eyes turned to him, but he didn’t speak. He didn’t need to; the message was clear. Everyone slowly sat again in silence, still glaring daggers at each other but not raising their voices, or their swords, again. They returned to their drinks, honoring once more the unspoken truce between sailor and pirate.
After all, it was safer to remain here in the tavern than risk heading out to sea again. Not yet. Not while they could still milk every drop of relief from shore leave. And not until departure was absolutely, unquestionably necessary.
From her seat at a small table in the corner of the room, where she had watched the entire evening unfold, Captain Talathiel Vanduin smiled into her drink. It had been the same in every town she and her crew had visited of late. The same fears whispered among the patrons. The same stink of terror in the air. These pirates needed a miracle, a shimmer of something to hope for again. And Tala was here to offer it to them.
“It’s not only islands that are appearing and disappearing,” she said casually. Her voice was low and quiet, but heads turned her way almost at once.
“And what would you know about it, siren?” growled one of the men. “You waterborn don’t have the same relationship with the ocean we mortals do. What’s it to you if there’s strange happenings in the deep?”
Tala did not bother to stand. Every eye in the room was already trained on her. Those who might not have noticed before that one of the Daughters of Ralith sat amongst them were certainly aware of it now. She could feel people sweeping their eyes across her dark teal hair in its complicated twists and braids, its many jeweled accents catching the candlelight like stars. Tala could tell who was unnerved by the deep purple scales that ran along her nose and cheekbones, and who found themselves honored to be in the presence of one of the legendary huntresses.
She took an extra long time with the next sip of her drink, before she finally answered
lazily, “Ralith may have chosen us as her children, but you lot chose the sea as your home. The saltwater and brine runs just as much in your blood as it does in ours, we know that.” She let her words sink in, placating many of the sailors as she took another drink. Then, with a self-satisfied smirk, she purred, “I’ve come to offer you the plunder of a lifetime. To share in a hunt so grand, even the Daughters of Ralith couldn’t claim it on their own.”
“And I suppose it’s on some vanished island, is it?” asked one of the naval officers.
“Not an island,” Tala corrected him. “A fortress. About to appear, and be ours for the taking.”
For a moment, sailors and pirates turned and glanced at each other in confusion. A whisper spread through the common room as drinking companions and neighbors checked each other’s stories. Finally, one of them piped up, “But we’ve heard of no fortresses gone missing.”
“And yet that gentleman,” said Tala, nodding at one of the older sailors who had spoken up earlier that evening, “mentioned coming across an island that simply appeared out of the middle of nowhere. It was not on any map, it had not disappeared. It simply ... was.”
“So then,” said the naval officer, “what kind of fortress becomes real out of nothing?”
“The kind that hides from your world,” said Tala. “The kind that exists, only not where you would easily find it. But in this realm and those beyond, you know it as Cinderstone.”
In every port, the reaction was the same. Half the room burst into laughter at the mention of what they thought was just a myth. The other half defended her, claiming the prison fortress was real, even if none of them had ever found it themselves. And then, just as someone had done in every town, the question was finally asked. This time, by the barkeep.
“And if such a place as Cinderstone did exist, how would you happen to know where it was?”
Now, finally, Tala stood. “Because I’ve seen it for myself. Hunted within its walls.” She fished a small stack of parchment from one of her inner pockets as she spoke. “There’s a bounty to be found there that would make kings weep. Not only coin and jewels, but magic itself. Trinkets of such power and curiosity that they could make simple pirate captains and crews into legends by their own right.”
There was a stirring in the room now, not only from the privateers and scoundrels among them, but from many of the King’s navy. A few of them looked briefly eager and excited, but were quickly silenced by their commanding officers. After all, no proper sailor would chase something as trivial as buried treasure. And yet ...
Tala smiled wickedly at all of them as she dropped the parchment squares on her table. “Not everyone can travel across the worlds, like we sirens can. Lucky for you lot, I know where Cinderstone will appear. Anyone prepared to storm its walls with us is entitled to anything they find. Be it rations to resupply your ships, treasure to weigh down your pockets, or something a bit more ... interesting.”
She could feel it now ... that hum of eagerness. The only thing that could puncture the pirates’ fear: the promise of a conquest that was simply too big to pass up. As an excitable chattering began to ripple through the room, Tala finished the rest of her drink and started to make her way to the bar to order one more for the road. As she shouldered past a group of particularly keen young pirates, one of them grabbed her by the elbow.
“Say we wanted to come pillage this Cinderstone Fortress,” he said, eyes wide with the mere thought of such an adventure. “How would we know how to find it?”
“Simple,” said Tala, cocking her head back toward the parchment stack laying harmlessly at her abandoned seat. “All you’d need is a good map.”
There was a mad dash for those nearest to run and claim their maps first, and Tala let them fight over the scraps of parchment as she calmly paid for her last tankard, slipping a few extra coins to the barkeep in a preemptive apology for the broken furniture. Sure enough, no less than three chairs were shattered as a small brawl broke out between sailors trying to snatch up their own maps, and pirates saying the naval officers didn’t deserve them. It wasn’t until Tala was about to slip out into the night again that the tavern finally settled again, and one of the pirates called out to her.
“But my crew were just here, two weeks back!” he said, looking at his own map. “Weren’t nothing there but open sea and a handful of scattered isles.”
“There will be,” promised Tala.
“When? How do we know when to get there?”
The whole room was silent as they waited for Tala’s answer, and she smirked coyly once more. “Listen,” she said. “Just listen. You’ll know.” And with that, she left the pirates and sailors to scrutinize the strange maps in their hands, all with their glowing fox-headed compass rose in the bottom corner. In the coming days or weeks, she knew they would revel in the realization that the maps shifted as they did. They did not only paint where Cinderstone would be, but just how to get there from wherever their ship was at the moment. Even their ink-etched waters would shift to reflect the tides.
The pirates would also discover, she was certain, that these maps did more than simply mark a faraway location. Sometimes, when the wind was just right, whoever was nearest their scrap of parchment might be lucky enough to hear something in the distance. Or smell something unfamiliar. It might take some time, but Tala knew the clever ones among them would quickly learn: these maps could whisper stories of the world to you.
Tala quickly made her way back through the abandoned twists and turns of this latest portside town, with its empty streets and shuttered windows, and headed straight for the docks. There was only one ship that was not entirely dark and empty, and it crawled with her own pirate crew. Wordlessly, Tala gestured to the women to begin casting off as soon as she strode up the gangplank of the Hunt. They nodded and set to work at once, the whole deck springing to life as elegantly and seamlessly as the gears in a clock. As Tala slipped easily through them, stepping over ropes and dodging around moving cargo crates with practiced grace, she could feel the water beneath their hull beginning to churn in answer; the sea was as eager for them to return as The Daughters of Ralith were to be sailing again. After all, there were a dozen more villages just like this one. And Tala had many, many maps to deliver.
The songs had changed again. Slowly, new stories began filtering in through the gloom and fear: stories about the treasures that awaited them at Cinderstone. The portside taverns all across the Known World suddenly found themselves playing host to strange bards from out of town, all singing of adventure and gold. They sat by the fires in seaside pubs, strumming their lutes and crooning out promises of plunder ripe for the taking. Some of the troubadours didn’t even bother sitting inside. Instead, they waited at the docks, catching pirates and sailors right as they disembarked. Sometimes earning a coin for their tales, but just as often being entirely ignored.
But their songs stuck. And soon every deck of every pirate ship was filled with tales of maps that came to life, and the beautiful sirens who had gifted them. They sang new sea shanties about scores of marauders banding together to claim a legendary prize. The tavern stories about disappearing islands and frozen seas were now told alongside whispers of a king’s ransom, just waiting to be seized by any brave enough to try.
It was not only pirates who were drawn in by the songs. Many honest sailors found themselves hanging on every word, eager to learn more. Eager to be a part of a free ship, allowed to chase whatever adventure they liked, rather than sailing the same paths day in and day out, answering to royalty’s whims. And all those sailors with thoughts of piracy in their hearts found it harder every day to ignore its call. Within only a week of the first new songs being sung, half a dozen mutinies had taken place on the high seas as captains in the King’s Navy were deposed by those men and women who wanted nothing more than to sail to Cinderstone.
And then, though no one was quite certain when the change came, those tavern songs began to include fresh lyrics. Dates. Times down to the very day, the very moment Cinderstone would ostensibly appear in the middle of nowhere. Fleets of ships began to depart every port, sailing in earnest for the location on their maps. Soon, a small army found itself in tenuous alliance, moored in and around the series of scrappy islands that were the only land to be seen for days in any direction. Some of them camped out on the shores, building bonfires and continuing to swap tales and rumors with other crews as ships continued to arrive throughout the week. And some merely remained on their own boats, scared of leaving deck in case something should happen early.
Everyone simply waited. Not just pirate ships, but naval vessels who were newly claiming themselves as privateers. There were crews from all walks of life, with all shapes and styles of ship imaginable. There were massive galleons and small, slim clippers. There were garishly-painted figureheads depicting mermaids and gryphons, and others that were golden knights, or simply left their bows blank. Humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes ... they were all accounted for, along with some of those rarer creatures that boasted humanoid intelligence. Fur and scale and wing could be seen dotted amongst the crews here and there, and there was even one ship entirely made of those bards and players who had been spreading their songs for months now. Whether they had their own map, or they had merely followed one of the other ships, none of the pirates knew. But they let them into the community without question, and soon the players had made themselves comfortable amongst the scoundrels and freebooters and raiders.
From her position tonight in the crow’s nest aboard the Hunt, Tala could see it all. She could hear the low chatter vibrating through the hulls of neighboring ships, and the songs that echoed across the water. She could feel the sand grinding beneath the low tide on every nearby island, and knew the ocean was just as eager as its pirates. She quickly counted the ships, calculating in her head how many maps had been delivered. Finally, she pocketed her spyglass and dropped back down from the crow’s nest, swinging and sliding easily through the rigging until she reached solid planks once more.
Tala made her way belowdecks and found the mapweaver’s door. She knocked twice, then entered without waiting for a response. The familiar room – once a navigator’s workshop, and now converted into something much more complicated – greeted her with the scent of fresh ink and thick parchment. As usual, every free space on the walls was covered with drawings and scrawled notes. A massive table filled the center of the room, its entire surface an etched map of the Known World, its roads and nations and mountains burned directly into the wooden surface. Not by pen or flame, she knew, but by a curious and occasionally unfathomable magic. And leaning over it, adding some indiscernible detail to a series of islands in the south, was the seventeen-year-old Cartomancer himself.
“The Shavid have arrived,” she said. “Just in time, too. They’ll want to see tonight’s festivities for themselves.”
Fox looked up from his work and grinned with such a self-satisfied smile that, for a moment, he looked very much like the clever creature for whom he was named. “There will be so many new stories to tell that they won’t know what to do with themselves.” He straightened, stretching his back with a groan of exhaustion and pain. “How long have I been down here this time?”
“Only a few hours,” said Tala. “But you need to eat before we start. Can’t have you running dry before tonight is finished.”
Fox grunted in acknowledgment and let himself sink into a chair, obediently devouring the plate of salted meats and hard bread that had been left for him earlier that afternoon. He closed his eyes as he ate, leaning his head back and shoving food blindly into his mouth without a single care for what it was.
Over the last year, Tala had watched Forric Foxglove grow slightly taller, and let his hair run wild until he had to pull it back so it didn’t fall in his face while he worked. She had watched as he learned entirely new magics and strange facets of his Cartomancy Blessing. In fact, Tala wouldn’t have called it “learning” at all, so much as “inventing.” While some Blessed might have mentors and generations of books and knowledge to aid and educate, Fox’s magic had always been a bit of an anomaly.
The Cartomancers of old – or Mapweavers, as they were often known – had disappeared over three hundred years ago. Hardly any records survived that had anything useful to say, and nowhere had Fox ever managed to find so much as a note on how he should go about learning to hone his own magical gifts. The Mapweavers were things of legend and myth, and when Fox’s own Blessing had come to light, no one had been quite sure how to manage it. Of course, there were the Shavid, who claimed the Mapweaver powers as a branch of their own magical family tree. They had helped where they could, along with a handful of scholars, teachers, and curiously-Blessed friends. All of them had given Fox the tools to understand how to begin. How to learn, and stretch, and unravel the mysteries of his own magic.
But mostly, there had been The Historian – Darby Whistler. The one living man tasked with recalling all of history. The man who had sacrificed his freedom a year ago, so that Fox and his companions might escape the dreaded Cinderstone Fortress. For him, Fox had pushed himself to the brink. And Tala had been by his side as he tested the very limits of his power for a year, discovering what could be done, and pushing down walls between himself and the impossible. After all, legendary Blessings were not bound by mundane things like reason and precedent. And so, Fox had learned. He had taught himself over the past year, how to do everything from map the waterways between realms to hiding whole pieces of the world so nobody else could find them.
But in these moments, when he let himself run too long without eating because he was lost in his power, or when his skin grew pale from magical exhaustion and Tala had to wrap him in a blanket and sing him to sleep despite his protests, she had to remind herself that Fox was still just a boy. And her job – the job she had tasked herself with almost since meeting him – was to protect him. Not for the first time since Fox’s plan to rescue Darby had begun to take shape, Tala wondered briefly if there was another way. Bringing something as large and dangerous as Cinderstone would be taxing on him, there was no doubt. And Darby might just as soon kill Fox for being reckless as be grateful for the escape ... But, just as quickly, Tala reminded herself that tonight was not only for Fox and Darby Whistler. Tonight was for the pirates.
Tonight was for Lai.
Almost as if Fox had heard her thoughts, his eyes snapped open once more and he swallowed his last bite of hurried supper. “Now then,” he said, pulling himself to his feet with another grunt, “all we need to finish out the tale properly is one,” he held up a single finger, “pirate goddess.” Fox grinned at Tala. “Shall we put out the call?”
For a moment, Tala listened. She reached out with her own magic into the depths of the open seas all around them, searching for any approaching ship. Like Fox could hear things and see them through his connection to the wind, so too could Tala and the Daughters of Ralith often sense things unseen by mortal eyes, so long as those things were ocean-bound.
No one else was coming. At least, no one would make it in time. Every sailor, pirate, and bard who would be gathering here tonight was already waiting outside, bathed in a dwindling sunset. This was the cast for Lai’s story – the tale that would spread through every corner of the world and let each pirate know: a new god ruled their seas.
“Tell her it’s time,” said Tala.
With an obedient nod, Fox touched a single empty space on his map, and the wood beneath his finger began to glow.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.