The Merry's Dalliance

by Cerridwen Iris Shea


“Are you sure it’s wise for you to be in here on your own?”

Kit Erskine stared at the speaker. A smile twitched her lips and won. He was a good-looking man, probably in his mid to late thirties. Dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, but not powdered. Real hair, not a wig. Blue eyes. Features pleasingly arranged, and lines at mouth and eyes which suggested a sense of humor. That could be a life saver in this day and age, a sense of humor. He was tall, lithe, and muscular. His hands proved he didn’t do hard labor for a living, but was capable of it. “I assure you, kind sir, I go where I please.”

“You may think you’ve hidden your loveliness under man’s garb,” he said. ”But a man would have to be blind not to recognize you for what you are.”

“What am I, sir?”

“A beautiful woman with dangerous green eyes and flaming red hair peering out from under your hat.” A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Prey.”

“Are you a predator, sir?”

One corner of his mouth lifted in an almost-smile. “Not tonight.”

“Then I shan’t worry. May I buy you a drink? BriYann pours a fine ale. It’s why I come where whenever I’m on this island.”

“I’ve had quite enough tonight, thank you. So you’ve been in here before? And never had any trouble?”

“Only once. People have long memories on this island, Mr. ...?”

“I’d rather remain nameless, if you don’t mind.”

“So you’re in trouble, Mr. Nameless.”

“No.”

He said it too quickly, and Kit knew it was a lie. “I believe I’ve had enough tonight, too. Best wishes to you. And your chivalry is appreciated, if unnecessary.”

“I will see you home.”

“Will you?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. You may be safe in here, but outside...”

“I assure you I am used to looking after myself.”

“I’d never forgive myself if you came to harm.”

“Or are you simply trying to charm your way into my bed?”

He flushed and looked away for a moment, then looked back. ”You are far too much of a lady to allow a stranger in your bed so quickly.”

Kit leaned across the table, her green eyes staring into his blue ones. “That shows how little you know me.” She laughed at his expression and sat back. “Very well, then, Mr. Nameless, escort me home.”

She rose and fastened her cloak with a large, silver broach shaped like a sea serpent’s head. Nameless adjusted his own cloak and frowned. “Is something wrong?” Kit asked.

“Either I imbibed more than I thought, the liquor is stronger than expected, or there’s too much smoke in here.”

“None of the above,” Kit smiled.

“Your broach, it looked as though the eyes lit up and a tongue came out of its mouth.”

“Yes.” Kit’s smile broadened.

Nameless shook his head as though to clear it. As they moved towards the door, a man jostled them. He turned towards them with a growl. Nameless reached for his dagger. But the man recognized Kit, bowed, and backed away.

“Beg pardon,” he said to her.

“Granted.” She placed a hand on Nameless’s arm, both to stay the removal of his weapon from its sheath and to indicate he was with her.

Once they were outside, in the humid air smelling of a thousand blossoms, Kit released him. “Thank you.”

“It was your presence that stopped a fight.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate your gallantry.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I hope your pride’s not wounded.”

“Better a wounded pride than a slit throat.”

“Practical as well as handsome.”

“You’re flirting.” His tone was amused, and Kit saw the glint in his eyes.

“Of course. I appreciate a handsome, gallant man.”

He laughed. “I’d lie if I said I didn’t enjoy the appreciation. Please, my lady, don’t turn down that street.”

“Why ever not?”

“It leads to the docks.”

“I know that.”

“But I’m to take you home, not deeper into danger.”

“That is the way home.”

He bowed slightly. ”Forgive me, my lady. I assumed you were here for a night’s amusement.”

“You’re forgiven, and I sought entertainment, but not the voyeuristic type you mean. My ship leaves at first light.”

“Ship?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. We were in port to restock our supplies.”

“On your way...”

“Wherever the waves take us. My dear Mr. Nameless, if you desire passage away from this island, I’m sure it can be arranged.”

“Thank you, but no. My business keeps me here longer than the dawn.”

“Ye’re won’t be alive to see the dawn.” A voice as rough as sandpaper interrupted them. ”Your blood’ll be what the street sweepers find.”

Nameless whirled in the direction of the voice, placing Kit behind him with one hand, drawing his sword with the other, immediately blocking a thrust from the attacker.

Kit turned so her back was to his, drawing her own sword with her right hand and her dagger with her left. There were six of them, rough men, not wearing anything to distinguish them as a coherent group.

“Come here, my pretty mouse,” Kit purred.

The man in front of her parted his lips, his eyes alight. She caught his sword at an angle, close enough to stick the dagger he hadn’t seen between his ribs and up into his heart. He made a startled sound, a bubble of blood popped at his lips, and he dropped.

Kit pulled her dagger out and slashed her sword at another attacker, cleanly decapitating him. “Two,” she said as the body fell and the head rolled away. She heard a grunt behind her and felt blood droplets spatter on her. “Three.”

Her next opponent was better skilled. They thrust and parried back and forth, moving away from Nameless and his battle. This man was young, with long, curling dark hair, and a carefully trimmed goatee and a moustache. His clothes weren’t expensive, but he wore them with a studied neatness, barely ruffling them in spite of a life-or-death battle.  “Did you go away to school before starting your life of crime?” Kit asked, as they circled each other.

“Killed a lot of scholars instead.” He lunged.

Kit jumped clear, but the sleeve of her shirt tore on the point of his blade. “Rayelle’ll have a right fit about that,” she said grimly.

“She can use it as your shroud.” He thrust again.

Kit parried. “Not anytime soon, love. Still time for you to turn over a new leaf.” She lunged this time and he leaped back. “Your skills are good. Perhaps a tad overeager, but with practice “““

“You’re my practice!” He struck; she easily deflected.

“Your footwork could stand improvement.” She forced him back.

“My footwork is fine.” He lunged again.

She let him come close enough to knee him in the groin. He let out and oath and toppled over. She placed the point of her sword at his throat. “Interested in a life of adventure rather than crime? I’m offering you an opportunity, my boy. ‘Long with your life, of course.”

He spat at her and missed. “I don’t take orders from the likes o’you!”

“Sexist bastard. Pity.” She flicked her wrist and the dagger in her other hand hit the bull’s eye of his heart. He gasped and his eyes glazed over.

Before Kit could retrieve her dagger, she was tackled from the side and thrown to the ground. The sword was knocked out of her hand. She tried to kick at her attacker, to push him away, but he was too heavy.

He drew back his fist to strike her, then arched backwards and gurgled. The tip of Nameless’s sword protruded through the front of the attacker’s chest.

Kit scrambled out from under him before he fell forward. “Nearly became a bit too attached to him, but thanks,” she said. She bent to retrieve her sword.

Nameless grimaced. He had to brace one foot on the dead man in order to pull his sword out. “You’re good in a fight, my lady.”

“You do quite well yourself. Damn!” She caught a blur of movement in her peripheral vision. “This is tiresome.” She faced the attacker and tossed her sword from her right hand to her left. She raised her right hand and pinched the first two fingers to her thumb. The attacker clutched his chest, staggered a few steps forward and fell over.

“What the hell did you do to him?”

“Stopped his heart. Basic skill. Useful.” Kit pulled her dagger out of the heart in which it currently resided and wiped it on the dead man’s clothes. “Six. I think we got them all. No one to scuttle back and report failure.”

“Six dead men.” Nameless shook his head. “Damn cutpurses.”

“They were more than that,” said Kit. “They were killers. Not very good ones. Lazy, with mediocre skills, except for the young one. If they were any good, they’d have attacked without warning, trapped us in the narrow street back there, instead of allowing us out in the open here, with room to fight, and posturing as they came in.” She gestured with her dagger. She reached down and cut away the young man’s purse. “And paid.”

“Paid.” Nameless set his mouth in a grim line.

“Paid. Those purses are too heavy for the likes of them to carry ‘round for more than a few hours. Paid tonight.”

“Maybe they were paid their wages before shore leave.”

“They’re not men of the sea. Haven’t the look to them, nor the smell. They were paid to kill one of us. Or both of us.” Kit moved from man to man, cutting the purses from their belts. “Question is, which one? I’ve certainly earned enemies over the years, and from the way you fought, I’d say the same of you.” Most of her enemies believed her dead, but some may have heard the rumors from those who saw her walking about, undisguised...He jerked his head in agreement, but said nothing.

“Catch.” She tossed him three purses, one after the other. And kept three.

He caught them, but frowned. “I can’t.”

“They’d have done worse to us, if the situation went a different tack, and ended up with heavier purses. Whatever trouble you’re in, the money will come in handy.”

He swallowed. “Thank you.”

“I ask again, d’ye need transport off the island?”

He shook his head. “I can’t leave yet.”

“Understood.” She started to walk away.

“You’re leaving them here?”

“You’re right.” Kit returned to remove the swords and daggers from the dead figures. “Need more weapons?”

“But...“

“The rag pickers will take them if we don’t.”

“No.” He swallowed.

“As you wish.” She gathered the swords in her arms. “Good night, then.”

“I’m walking you all the way to your ship. Especially now.”

“I accept with gratitude.” Kit began to walk along the docks. Nameless had to step over several bodies to keep up.

“Your speech pattern changes,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“When I first met you, you spoke like the most genteel of ladies. And now you’re slipping into a more...casual cadence.”

“I adjust to the circumstances.” She smiled at him.

They walked in silence past several moored ships. It was an odd time of night; sailors were either bedded in their bunks or bedded with their whores. The piers were deserted, except for those who kept watch on their own decks, and scavengers in hiding, waiting for an opportunity.

Kit stopped. “There she is.” Pride filled her voice.

Nameless stared at the ship. “The Merry’s Dalliance?”

“Beautiful, isn’t she? Square-rigged, but fast. And look at our figurehead. Have you ever seen the like?”

Nameless stared. The figurehead was intricately carved and consisted of three figures: a man and a woman intertwined on the back of a dragon. The dragon stared forward, but held an open book in one extended claw. “Never.” He turned to stare at Kit. “But The Merry’s Dalliance is a legend! She exists only in stories and songs. Impossible tales of sorcery are told about her.”

Kit laughed. “My dear Mr. Nameless, I assure you she is real. And immediately before us.”

“You didn’t rename her because of the tales?”

Kit smiled at him. “I’ve yet to hear them all, but I’m a player in some.”

“Ahoy! Captain!” called a voice from the deck.

Nameless’s mouth fell open. “Captain?”

“Captain Kit Erskine.” She smiled then turned back to the ship. “Jasper! I’ll be needing a hand here. Had to do some killing.”

“Poor unlucky bastards.” A dusky face appeared at the rail. ”Be right down.”

Kit turned back to Nameless. “Are ye sure ye want to remain nameless?”

“I must.”

“Then best of luck to you.” She kissed his cheek and turned to hand the armload of swords to Jasper, as he met her coming off the gangplank.

#

“Captain? Captain! Wake up, please?”

Kit groaned and opened her eyes. “Olaf?” She looked into the large, square features of the man bending over her. “What’s wrong?”

“Forgive me for entering the cabin, but you didn’t hear my knock.” He stepped back and one hand picked at the other.

“Killing people wears me out.” Kit sat up. “Is there a problem?”

“You’re needed on the deck, Captain.”

“I’ll be there faster than a gunpowder flash. Thank you, Olaf.”

“Captain. Ma’am. Captain.” He backed out, bowing, and hit his head on the doorframe. “Pardon.” He shut the door.

Kit rushed through her ablutions, dressed in trousers and a loose white shirt, this one with both sleeves intact. She skipped the hat, preferring to feel the wind in her hair, although she caught it back in a loose red braid. She strapped on her sword and slid her daggers into their sheaths at her waist, in her boot, between her shoulder blades. She touched her fingers to her lips and then to the silver amulet beside her porthole. “Morning, Merry,” she whispered. She holstered her pistol and was ready to meet the day.

The men worked on deck. Work never stopped at sea. The day was clean and bright, with good visibility and a brisk wind. The harpist, Egil, was in his corner near the bow, playing for the Merry’s amusement.

“Why’d you deem it necessary to disrupt my beauty rest, Drystan?” She asked her First Mate. “And if ye give me the fiction I don’t need it, I’ll cuff ye.”

A short, muscular man stripped to the waist, coiling rope, looked up at her words and grinned. Kit winked at him. Dominic was one of her best men on the ship. With his sly sense of humor, he would grasp the meaning of her words more quickly than Drystan.

“Captain, our Niall spotted a familiar flag from his perch in the nest.”

“Why do I think I’ll not be happy when I see it?” She held out her hand for the spyglass and pointed it in the direction Drystan indicated. She swore an oath so harsh all the men within her hearing flinched. Kit lowered the spyglass and handed it back to Drystan. “Ralapho Kleridus. What is that bloody madman up to now?”

“No good,” Drystan said. ”He’s raised the flag of the Blood-Dipped Cross under his standard. You know what that means.”

“He’s found another Seer and plans to burn her. What was the damn Governor of Port Thriall thinking when he gave Kleridus such unchecked power? Seems we have a purpose today after all. Where do you think he’ll attempt this murder?”

“Bald Rock makes the most sense. It’s close and there’s little cover for anyone approaching.”

“We’ll see about that.” Kit gestured to the men close by. “Spread the word. We go in, get out the captive or captives, if there’s more than one. Kill as many of Kleridus’s men as you can. No prisoners from among them.”

“What about Kleridus himself?” asked Drystan.

“I’d prefer to kill him myself, but I shan’t be angry if another cuts him down first.”

“The Prophecy forbids it.”

“Should we work against the Prophecy, I’ll deal with the anonymous Prophet myself,” said Kit. “The weather’ll get a mite tempestuous in a bit, and I apologize in advance for the discomfort. Put up the Dragon flag and let’s go in as quickly as they can.”

“No one will interfere between the Blood-Dipped Cross and the Dragon Flag,” said Drystan.

“Not if they’ve got any brains,” Kit agreed.

“A deeper wind would help.”

“So it will. As the weather darkens, the wind will pick up. Take a few minutes to prepare, and I’ll begin the change. We’ll hold off on the rain until we’ve surveyed their position.”

Drystan scattered the men, who in turn, spread out to repeat the orders. He turned back to Kit. “Kleridus thinks you’re dead.”

“He’s in for a nice surprise then, innit he?” Kit turned and stalked back to her cabin. She needed to weave a few chants before she could call up a storm, protections for the ship and her men. She might need to call upon the Mer-Cats or the Deep Serpent, and that meant a night spent in the chamber of the Mer-King. She smiled at the thought. She enjoyed the time spent with the Mer-King, fulfilling their bargain of alliance. She wasn’t about to let him know it, but she admired him as leader of the sea peoples.

“You killed me.”

Kit gasped and drew her sword, then let out a sigh. It was the youngest of the attackers from the previous night, the one she hoped would join her crew. He was transparent, as new shades were, and petulant, no doubt a characteristic held over from life.

“You would have killed me.”

“Yes, but...“

“Survival of the fittest, dear boy, and I’m the fittest. Besides, I gave you an option, and you made your choice.”

“You didn’t give me time to make a choice.”

“You insulted me. You played a game. You lost.”

“I’m simply going to stay here, then.” He crossed his translucent arms over his transparent chest and frowned.

“Suit yourself.”

“You won’t like it when I make it impossible for you to eat and to sleep and to...“

Kit laughed. “You are a silly boy.”

“That’s what ghosts do.”

“Not to me. You’re welcome to stay, but you’ll earn your keep.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You’re free to leave.”

“What if I want to stay, but don’t want to do what you say?”

“What is your name, boy?”

He looked at her, surprised. “Peter.”

“Well, Peter, I stopped your comrade’s heart by pinching together my fingers. Do you really think I can’t banish you to the heaven or hell of my choice?”

He stared at her, his mouth forming a round o of horror. “Who are you?”

“Kit Erskine, Captain of The Merry’s Dalliance.”

“I know that!” He made an impatient gesture with his right hand. “We were sent to kill you, after all. But...what are you?”

“That, my dear Peter, will have to wait for another day. As will the story of who sent you to kill me and why. If you’ll excuse me, I have some weather-coaxing to achieve. And that takes a good deal of concentration.”

#

“How many men do you figure Kleridus has this time?” Drystan asked.

“We’ll be outnumbered, no doubt,” said Kit. “I need you to stay here, with the ship ready. When we return, we’ll need to set a quick sail. I’m only taking Dominic, Olaf, Hawk, Ina, and Joaquin.”

“Six of you ‘gainst all of them?” Drystan frowned.

“We’ll do better to be sparse and quick,” said Kit. “We’ll get the Seer and get out.”

“And if he follows?”

“We can only hope our luck’s so good. Would like to put him and his at the bottom of the sea, I would.” She turned to the young boy hovering near her. “Scat, my lad, fetch the crew of which I just spoke; tell them dress to fight and move. I’ll be bringing on a storm when we get close enough to the island.” Scat, barely ten, rescued from a life of hunger and abuse several short months ago by Kit, nodded and scrambled away.

“Boy’s put some weight on,” Kit noticed, watching him go. “Sea life agrees with him.”

“Life on The Merry agrees with him,” Drystan corrected. “He’s still a scrawny one, but at least the ribs don’t point out in all directions any more.”

It took only a few minutes for Kit’s chosen crew to assemble, dressed for quick motion and armed for battles with cutlasses, daggers, and the occasional pistol.

“I’ll bring in clouds now,” said Kit. “I’ll not bring up whipping winds and rain until the Seer’s on the pyre. We’re not wanting to give the flames any help, now, do we?” Before anyone could respond, she turned to a tall, brown man, who was all corded muscles and angles. “Hawk, are we close enough for you to fly a quick scout and tell us if they are on Bald Rock and how they’re situated?”

Hawk squinted at the island coming up before them. “I can.” He raised his arms out from his sides. They turned to wings and the rest of him shifted into a large hawk. He rose into the air and headed for the island.

“As soon as I can, I’ll request the rain,” Kit continued. “Especially if they’ve lit the kindling.”

“Captain, do we try to sink their ship?” Dominic asked.

“The Merry wants us to take the Custis O’Malley, not sink her,” said Kit. “My gut says it won’t be today.”

“Aye, Captain.” Dominic nodded.

“What is our purpose, Captain?” Ina asked. A statuesque, raven-haired beauty, she preferred life in the sea brandishing a cutlass to life on land on her back in a bordello.

“Our aim is to rescue Kleridus’s prisoners. He may hold more than one Seer, or he may hold her loved ones. We get them out, preferably alive. And however many of Kleridus’s men we need to remove to do it, so be it.”

Hawk returned quickly, shifted back into man form, and shook himself to settle into his body. “The Seer’s tied to a stake, but not lit yet. Kleridus’s men are arguing about something. There’s another prisoner, too, tied up. A man. Don’t know if they’ll build him another fire, or have other plans for him.”

“Are they on Bald Rock?”

“Yes. The Custis O’Malley is anchored in the cove directly below it. It took three small boats to get everything over.”

“We’ll anchor on the other side of the Rock, where there’s a high neighbor jutting beside the smooth, open baldness that gives us some protection for our entrance,” ordered Kit. “We’ll only need a single boat. Hawk, make a bit of mischief for their boats, so that it takes them awhile to get back to the O’Malley and more time to get organized and come after us. Ina and Olaf, free the Seer. Joaquin, create a distraction, draw some away, then come around and see where you’re needed. Dominic, you and I will get the man.”

“Aye, Captain,” her crew responded.

The boat lowered. Kit took a moment to breathe deeply and connect with the sky and the water. The water stilled. Thick grey clouds raced across the sky, blotting out the sun. The air grew heavy and thick. The atmosphere felt static, as though it waited for further instructions. Her crew climbed down first, and Kit jointed them. The boat could hold ten comfortably; twelve in a pinch. Dominic designed it, after comparing several types of smaller crafts and adapting it to the needs of this particular crew. Egil changed his tune to one of luck and blessing. Kit lifted her hand to him in thanks and acknowledgement.

Olaf, Dominic, Joaquin and Ina rowed, moving the boat swiftly to the rocky shoreline. “Do we need to worry about a lookout?” Dominic asked.

Hawk shook his head. “Kleridus has one posted on the O’Malley; he’s taking advantage of his captain’s absence to sleep. Kleridus believes flying his standard will keep anyone from interfering.”

“And he’d be right, except for the likes of us,” said Dominic, looking sideways at Kit.

“Many thanks to the lack of quality crewmen attracted to the likes of Kleridus,” said Kit, touching her forehead, her heart, and her lips.

The crew sat silently until the boat came close enough to shore for all of them to jump out and haul it safely up on the rocky beach. They pulled it high enough not to be snatched by the tide, but easy enough to take back into the water quickly when they needed it. Kit signaled, and they split up into their teams. Hawk shifted into bird form and headed for the O’Malley small boats. Joaquin headed in another direction to provide his distraction. The remaining quartet darted amongst the rocks that rose up around Bald Rock, which was a slick, open area jutting out over the water.

They found a large boulder behind which to gather and take a look at the surroundings below them before launching their attack. A pyre was built in the center of Bald Rock: sticks, logs, straw, grasses carted from other parts of the island. Tied to a stake in the center was a woman. She wore only a linen shift, barefoot. Her dark hair hung loose and matted around her. Her head leaned against the stake, her eyes closed. Blood tricked from her mouth and bruises darkened her cheek and one eye. Nearby, two poles had been fastened into heavy wooden blocks. A man, stripped to the waist, was tied spread eagled between them. His chest and back were criss-crossed with whip marks. He, too, had a black eye.

“May the curses of all the Gods be upon Kleridus and his vile followers,” Kit murmured.

Kleridus stood between his two prisoners. “Evil creatures are not allowed to live,” he shouted. “I have been given the decree to root out evil and destroy it wherever I find it.”

“You are not fit to make those judgments,” the male prisoner challenged.

One of his men lifted a whip, but Kleridus stopped him. “Don’t bother to respond to the demon’s filth. He had the chance to leave the body; he had the chance to be saved, to join us, and he chose not to. This evil woman spews venom and lies, refusing to bow down to the True God of All. She calls it prophecy. She refuses to give it up. This evil man, her blood, tries to keep her from harm. He is equally guilty.”

He turned to the male captive. “We’ll start her fire first,” he said. “We’ll let you watch the flames ascend her body. We’ll let you hear her screams, knowing you can do nothing. Then we’ll begin flaying the skin from your body, inch by inch. Once you’re fully skinned, we’ll toss you on the pyre to roast.”

“I still say ye should have let us at her before the death,” said the man wielding the whip. “We would have taught her that a woman bends to a man’s desires.”

“And your own desires would be your doom,” Kleridus returned. “Fornicating with a demon opens you to join it. No, my men will not be contaminated by the likes of her.”

Kit felt the wave of hatred rise within her, as strong as the storm she was about to call and tasting like bile. She hoped Joaquin’s distraction would begin soon. She hoped she could control her emotions enough to focus and do what needed to be done. Kleridus took up himself to act like a judgmental god; therefore, he would have to face a vengeful goddess.

The kindling around the Seer was lit. The man let out a strangled cry, but the woman said nothing. Flames started to eat their way across the dry sticks towards her from all sides.

Kit took a deep breath and concentrated. She let the storm build and the rage within her, raised her arms to the sky and shot it out through her fingers. Dark, fecund clouds rolled across the sky over the rock, rumbling. Thick, heavy rain drops began to pour down. The flames hissed and steamed. Waves reached up from the water; the salty spray mixed with the rain. The flames grew weaker.

Kleridus swore. “Don’t let the fire go out!”

“But it’s raining,” one of his men pointed out.

The raindrops seemed to roar with rage, pounding down harder and more quickly.

“Do whatever is necessary!” Kleridus demanded.

The man leaned forward, concentrating on the tinderbox. Kit concentrated on connecting with the box’s energy. The tinderbox flared and the man’s arm caught fire. He screamed and dropped the box. “Help! Help!”

The others stared at him and did nothing. Fire salamanders raced up his arm and across his body. He ran to the edge of the cliff and jumped into the waves. They reached up to meet him and drew him into their depths with a howl. The salamanders turned into smoke, and then vanished.

Eerie, light notes of music rent the air, rising about the storm. Kleridus’s men turned. Silhouetted against a rock was a dark figure, playing a pipe. Not just any song floated out of its cylinder. This was a funeral dirge.

The men began to shout. Kit drew her cutlass and leaped forward with a scream loud enough and frightening enough to send a banshee scuttling for cover. Dominic, Olaf, and Ina followed suit. Kleridus’s men stared, transfixed, for a moment, as Kit’s band descended. Some of them screamed and ran towards their vandalized boats; others headed Kleridus’s shouts and brandished their own swords.

Kit cut the heads off two men, running at her side by side, with one stroke. She felt her magic course through her, and her sword was an extension of her anger. She turned, sensing another come up behind her, and ran him through the stomach. He fell, she pulled her sword out of his gut, and rolled him off the cliff with her boot.

She was the first to reach the male prisoner. She gasped when she recognized him. “Nameless!”

“Lady.” He tried to smile through the dried blood on his cracked lips. “Forgive me for not bowing, but I’m...”

“Tied up, so to speak,” she quipped. “All is forgiven.” She reached up and slit his bonds with her dagger. He sagged into her arms and she steadied him as best she could.

Nameless lifted his head from her shoulder and said, “There.”

Kit turned, trying to balance his weight, as the whip-wielding man ran towards them, preparing to strike. A loud thud rang out, red spread across his chest, and he fell, shot cleanly through the heart. “Good, Dom,” said Kit. He winked at her and turned his attention to another man.

“There’s a babe in the bracken!” Ina held up a blanket wrapped bundle.

“My sister’s,” said Nameless.

“We take the babe with us,” Kit ordered.

Hawk appeared them, in bird form, on top of the stake to which the woman was tied. He transformed quickly into a man and cut her free. What had been fire was now only a few tendrils of dark smoke.

“No!” screamed Kleridus, getting a good look at Kit. “You’re dead! By my own hand!”

“You’re not as thorough a killer as you wish,” Kit shot back.

“Do not let these demons live!” Kleridus was so livid he looked as though he’d burst with fury right there.

“Are ye strong enough for a weapon?” Kit asked Nameless.

“Yes,” he said, using her shoulder to push himself straight.

“Here, then.” She handed him the dagger that cut his bonds. “Don’t be leaving it in one o’them, now. I’m rather fond of it.”

Nameless stared at it. “It’s enchanted. I can feel the magic.”

“Aye. But you still need skill to use it.” She looked up. “Behind ye, Dom!” she shouted.

Dominic jumped at her words and narrowly missed a mortal wound. He dispatched his attacker with both cutlass and dagger, strewing several pieces of him on the ground. Hawk had the Seer completely free now, picked her up, and carried her out of the fray.

“Where’s he taking her?” Nameless demanded.

“You have to trust me for the moment, Nameless,” said Kit. “Dom, join the others. The gentleman and I will meet you shipboard.”

Dominic elbowed a man in the nose and kicked another in the groin. “I don’t want to leave you here. He’s not much good. He’s too badly hurt.”

“The woman and child need your protection. This man and I have fought back-to-back before. Quite recently.” Kit grabbed Nameless by the wrist. “Come with me.”

The teeming rain and flowing blood made the rocks slippery. Kit passed behind Kleridus, trying to rally his men, and took a foot to the back of his knee, sending him down into the muck. “Ye’re the evil one, Kleridus, and you’ll come to a bad end.”

He managed to get up on one knee and punched her into the gut, sending her backwards into Nameless, who managed to keep both of them from going down. “Not by your hand, demoness!”

“Not today, no.” Kit gasped, but regained her equilibrium. “But on a day when it’s a fair fight, we’ll meet and see who prevails.” She punched him in the jaw and he fell backwards.

“God will prevail,” he said.

“But whose god?” Kit returned. She gestured to Nameless and they scrambled away.

“Where are we going?” he gasped.

“We’re hoping they follow us,” said Kit.

Nameless looked back over his shoulder. “They are.”

“Good. Move as quickly as you can, to that narrow outcropping.” She pointed.

“We’re not jumping, are we?”

“Not into the water.”

“Into a boat? We’ll capsize it from this height.”

“Not quite. Go. Now!”

“My sister...“

“My crew will get her off the rock safely. Go!” She turned to engage some of Kleridus’s men and give the weakened Nameless time to get to the edge. The first two were easy kills. But the third man was a challenge. He was large and slow, but strong. Kit was annoyed by her inability to defeat him quickly.

She was even more annoyed when she misinterpreted one of his moves and he disarmed her, and then grabbed her with a grip around her throat that made her gasp for breath.

“I’ve got your demoness!” He called out.

Nameless turned and started back.

“Stay there!” Kit ordered.

“No.” Nameless held the dagger ready, cautiously making his way back across the glistening, slippery rocks.

“I’m going to snap her neck,” the big man announced.

Kit gurgled as he increased pressure.

“Won’t your Captain be angry he didn’t kill her himself?” Nameless asked.

“Oh. Could be right.” The man blinked rapidly and loosened his grip.

“She’s worth money, you know,” Nameless added.

“Evr’yone thinks she’s dead, man,” he responded. “No one’s gonna pay a bounty on someone’s already dead.”

“If you turned up with her alive, though...” Nameless coaxed. “Not your Captain. He’ll keep everything. He won’t give it to you, will he? He’s not a generous sort.”

“You can’t pay. We took all you carried.”

“But I know who’d give you more.” Nameless used the dagger to point. ”For her. Alive.”

The man stood there, looking confused. Kit gathered herself, hoping he didn’t notice her shift her body.

“This doesn’t get us anywhere,” said a familiar voice. “Talk, talk, talk, the lot of you. Dull, dull, dull.”

Kit’s abandoned cutlass rose from the ground and floated in the air. The man let go of Kit with a shriek and stepped back. The cutlass flew through the air into his heart. He fell backwards.

“Nice work, Peter,” said Kit.

“Aren’t you glad I didn’t stay on the ship?”

“Very. But don’t you wish you’d taken my offer when you were still alive?”

“I’m not going to think about it. Spilled that milk, didn’t I? You’ll have to get the sword out of him yourself. I’m not good at coordinating all the bits yet with being dead.”

“Certainly.”

“Do it quickly. Kleridus is on his way. Doesn’t have anyone with him; they either ran or they died, but he’s not the most genial of men, is he?”

Kit retrieved her sword, wiped it on the dead man’s vest and walked back to Nameless. “Thank you for coming back.”

“Were you just saved by a ghost?”

“Yes. Peter. One of the men we killed the other night. His spirit is hanging about. Come now, we must get off the island.” She walked to the tip of the outcrop and put her hands to her mouth, giving out a low, wild cry that caused a shiver to run up Nameless’s spine.

A huge, flat head with amber eyes rose from the water. A mouth filled with pointed teeth opened in a grinning greeting. The head was attached to a cylindrical body, deep purple, with iridescent ridges along its back.

Nameless stared, open-mouthed. Kit removed the dagger from his hand and replaced it in her back sheath. “Come along, man, we need to move.”

“We’re riding a sea monster?”

“He’s less of a monster than Kleridus. Come.” She slid onto the creature’s back, between a pair of ridges, and held out her hand to Nameless. He accepted her hand and climbed on behind her, between the same set of ridges. “Hold tight now,” she said, pulling his arms around her and placing his hands on the ridge before her. She set her hands over his, and tried to ignore the fact that his naked chest pressed against her back.

The creature glided into open water. They saw Kleridus stand at the edge of the cliff, shaking his fist at them. He screamed with fury. Kit turned around to laugh at him.

“He’ll try to make you pay for that,” said Nameless.

“I’ll add it to the list,” said Kit. “We’re fated to mortal combat; we might as well tote up as many insults as possible on both sides.”

“Why not finish it today?”

“Because it’s not up to me to decide when it’s finished.”

“Who makes that decision?”

“Not me; but not him, either. Hold tight now. This is a bit more complicated than riding a horse.”

#

Kit knocked on the cabin door. At the call, “Enter,” she did, closing the door behind her. Nameless sat on a chair in front of a small table, wearing clean dry clothes, eating the hot meal prepared for him. He’d managed to wash off most of the blood, but his cuts and bruises sharply contrasted to his pale skin.

“Lady.” He started to rise.

“Stay seated, please.” Kit dropped into the chair on the opposite side of the table. “Is the meal satisfactory?”

“It’s wonderful.”

“We’re fortunate to have an excellent cook. Did Rayelle tend to your wounds?”

“Yes. The ointments have disguised almost all the pain.” He reddened and Kit smiled, knowing how thoroughly Rayelle would tend such a handsome man. Perhaps she would have to speak to the woman about it. Before she could say anything, Nameless spoke. “Aorig? My sister? Are she and the babe...“

“In warm, dry clothes and safely asleep. Ina and Rayelle will stay with them, in case either takes a fever or needs anything.”

“Thank you. For everything.”

“Will you tell me your name now? Or am I forever to call you Nameless?”

“I am Luthias Skene,” he said. “My sister is Aorig, and her babe, Olwyn.”

“She was the reason you refused transport off the island?”

“Yes. I was told I could ransom her. But Kleridus lied. He always meant to kill us all.”

“He is a madman convinced his mission is holy; those are always the most frightening and ruthless of all. And the righteous are often the worst liars.”

“My sister can see the future.”

“Many fear the truth, and therefore seek to destroy it.”

“You don’t?”

Kit made a face. “I’ve seen too much to fear truth. It often disappoints me, but I do not fear it.”

Luthias smiled. “I wish all were as brave as you.”

Kit waved away his compliment. “A Seer predicted Kleridus’s doom, so he thinks he can avoid it if he murders all Seers.”

“I promise to repay you.” He sighed. “And I have so many questions.”

Kit raised her hand. “We will discuss the past and the future when I return. Until then, recover. Rest. My crew will treat you and yours with kindness and respect.”

“Where are you going?”

The alarm in his face flattered her. “I was lent power by the Mer-King today, and one of his creatures brought us home. The least I can do is ...thank him.”

“Thank him.” Luthias’s eyes darkened.

“We have an agreement.”

“Is that why you are in woman’s garb?”

Kit looked down at the gown, shimmering with blue and green, the bodice and its laces trimmed in silver. “Yes.”

“It suits you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Skene. You flatter me.”

“No, I...“ he stopped.

Kit waited, but he concentrated on his food and said no more. She stood up. “Rest well, Mr. Skene. I will see you when I return.”

She walked out of the room and shut the door. She could feel his conflicting emotions roiling around. It would be so easy to go back there, while he was so conflicted, and use her magic...but right now, she must leave him to work out his own emotions. She had an oath to fulfill. She returned to the deck to give Drystan final instructions for the evening. “And if Kleridus turns up, kill him.”

“Rather than take him alive and wait for you?”

“Simply kill him and feed him to the sharks. Or anything else that might want a bite out of him. If he won’t respect the Prophecy tonight, neither will we.”

“Yes, Captain.” He stared at her. “You are coming back in the morning?”

She smiled. “I always return.”

“Sometimes we fear you won’t.” Dominic stepped forward. “We think you might be kept prisoner. Or might choose to stay.”

She leaned to him and kissed his cheek. He closed his eyes, savoring it. “This is The Merry. We’re a part of each other. I return.”

The enormous clamshell containing all the colors of the rainbow surfaced, with its honor guard of Mermen, muscular and bare-chested. The hair on their head had waves in it like the sea, and was of many colors, reaching below their shoulders. Kit carefully climbed down the ladder, not used to maneuvering in a long dress. One of the Mer-guard offered his hand to help her step onto the shell.

Once she was settled, the Mer-guard chanted their spell, weaving a turquoise bubble around the shell and its cargo, and the shell began its descent into the water.

Kit looked up. A face peered out of a porthole. Luthias Skene. She raised a hand in greeting. He pressed his own hand to the window in response. She nodded, then lost sight of him as the water closed over her and she continued her journey to the Mer-King’s palace.

# # #