It was late, and Ferdinand was about to go down to his cabin when he spotted something unusual in the water. He wasn't one of the crew, only a passenger on his way to renew political talks with Brigid, but he'd always had good eyes, and was often the first to spot an unfamiliar sail.
Grabbing a glass, Ferdinand darted over to the windward rail and looked out at the dark shape in the water. It was like a porpoise, or a dolphin, but with a long, thin tail like a snake. As he watched, it drew closer to the ship, and he saw the glint of smooth, black skin like the back of a whale, although the creature was much too small to be one.
"What is it, lad?" one of the older mariners asked, drawing alongside him.
Ferdinand frowned. He disliked the casual manner in which the sailors spoke to him, but he'd found it easier to tolerate than to argue, and had grown accustomed to being treated alternately as a fool or a child. He handed the man his glass and pointed out what he'd seen. The creature was almost close enough for him to see clearly now in any case. "Some kind of serpent?" he said in a wondering tone.
"Aye, and a right queer one at that," the man agreed.
"Do you suppose it to be a threat?"
The man made a thoughtful sound. "T'ain't much to look at, is it? Poor devil, all thin and stretched like an eel."
Ferdinand's eyes widened. "Yes, that's just the thing. I was trying to think what it reminded me of. Like a giant—"
He fell suddenly silent as the creature broke the surface of a wave, its upper body visible only for a moment before it dove once more. Ferdinand had a momentary flash of dark eyes and pale flesh, before the creature was swallowed by the water once more.
"Did you see that?" Ferdinand hissed, grabbing at the other man's arm.
"It looked like—I thought it was a man!" Ferdinand exclaimed.
The sailor laughed. "A man is it? That there's an eel, my lad. A prodigious great monster of an eel I'll grant you, but an eel just the same."
"But I—" Ferdinand began, watching the dark shape as it retreated once more, apparently having lost interest in the ship. "I could have sworn—he had a face."
"Is that so," the sailor replied, clearly unconvinced. "Beautiful, was he?"
"Why—no," Ferdinand said, frowning. "In fact he was rather ugly."
The sailor barked with laughter. "What luck you have, lad!" he cried, slapping Ferdinand on the shoulder. "Whoever heard of an ugly siren? Oh my days, ugly indeed!" He doubled over, still cackling. It took him a minute to compose himself, which he did at last, wiping his eyes. "Still, perhaps it's lucky after all. Nobody ever came to a good end after meeting a beautiful siren."
Ferdinand huffed. Whatever he'd seen had been no siren, and no eel for that matter. But as to what it was, he couldn't begin to guess.
The storm struck them in the early hours of the morning, while most of the crew was snatching a few precious hours of sleep. Ferdinand was tipped from his hammock unceremoniously, bruising himself rather badly as he crashed against the sloping board below. Recovering himself, he raced to don his boots and cloak and made his way on deck. The bedraggled crew swarmed the rigging, trying valiantly to furl the topsheet before the whole mast could be carried away.
Ferdinand fought against the pitching roll of the ship, and the fury of the waves crashing over the deck, to hurry to the assistance of a man laying out lifelines along the length of the deck.
"What happened?" he cried. When he'd gone to sleep only a few hours earlier, the seas had been calm, the skies clear.
"Storm came out of nowhere!" the man screamed into the wind. "Ask me, it's dark magic!"
Fear struck Ferdinand cold. He'd heard tell of dark creatures, monsters who jealously guarded their territory with spells and cursed, but had never encountered such a thing in his travels, and he lacked the superstitious nature so common to the crew. Rain battered them as they worked to lay the heavy rope along the deck, while the ceaseless, offbeat rhythm of the waves constantly threatened to knock them off their feet.
All of a sudden there was a deafening crack, and the whole ship bucked like an angry horse, throwing every standing sailor to the deck. There followed a great rending and groaning, as though the ship herself were screaming in pain, and then her sonorous voice was joined by the cries and screams of the crew.
Ferdinand struggled to his feet, the wind whipping his face with stray locks of his own sodden hair, and looked around wildly. The ship's roll had altered, changing to a miserable shuddering and shaking, and Ferdinand felt fear close his throat, and seize an icy hand around his heart, as he realised what had happened.
"She's aground!" someone shouted over the roar of the storm.
"Aye, she's wounded!" another voice called.
A flurry of activity followed, although they were hampered by the waves beating against the ship's breached hull, grinding her back against the rocks each time, and soaking all her crew afresh. Ferdinand's long braid felt like a mooring cable against his neck, and as they worked desperately to save the ship his limbs grew heavier and heavier.
By dawn they had abandoned their efforts to bring her off the rocks, and had set about retrieving what they could from the ship's stores. The ship had fetched up against a desolate spit of land, too small to hold fresh water or plant life, and surrounded on one side by jagged rocks, on which the ship had wrecked. Ferdinand was so weary he could scarcely move, but he continued to shift his heavy limbs with slow, mechanical movements as they rescued the least waterlogged supplies and readied the surviving lifeboats. Several of the crew had drowned or been crushed belowdecks, and it was a miserable and meagre crowd of them that finally set off.
"By Sothis," the sailing master spat, sitting at the prow of the little boat with a murderous look on his sunburned face, while his exhausted crewmates rowed. "Four days' or more sailing from Brigid. We'll be lucky if we make it there in a fortnight."
"A body might take his turn," the cook growled in Ferdinand's ear. "Which it is his fault we was sundered."
"Aye," another one said, taking up the complaint a little louder. "Shouldn't the master know when his ship goes off course?"
"Storm didn't blow us that far off," the master snapped at them. "That cursed little island isn't even on our charts. Ask me, there was nothing natural about that storm, or that island."
Ferdinand shivered. He didn't look up, but the change in atmosphere was palpable all the same.
"What're you sayin', Dutton?" one man asked. "You think someone offended the goddess, bless her tits?"
The mood in the boat lifted for a moment with the men's tired laughter.
Dutton, the master, shook his head. "Offended some dark creature, more like. There's nasty things in these waters. Twisted things."
Ferdinand's mouth was dry. Dryer than it had been already after the night's labours and the rationed water. He couldn't help thinking of the thing he'd seen the night before. That had surely been a dark creature, if anything could be called such. He was aware of the old sailor, the one who'd called the creature an eel, rowing behind him. He prayed silently that the man wouldn't speak up.
"Now you mention it," said a voice behind him, slow and ponderous, freezing Ferdinand's blood. "Ol' Copper Nob here, he seen something."
"Ah—n-no," Ferdinand began, as everyone's weary gaze turned to him with renewed vigour. "Nothing of the sort—a mere fancy—"
"Saw something, did you, lad?" Dutton asked him in a considering tone.
Gripping the oar more tightly, Ferdinand drew himself up, squaring his aching shoulders. "I may be young, but I must remind you that I am still Ferdinand von Aegir, heir to—"
"Heir to nothing, Lordling," Dutton interrupted him, "unless we make landfall soon, before our water runs out."
Ferdinand clamped his mouth shut.
"What did you see?" the cook asked, glaring at Ferdinand. He'd ceased rowing, and his meaty fists lay upon his oar, tightly curled in anticipation.
"Said it was a siren of some ilk," the old sailor said. He chuckled low. "An ugly one."
Laughter followed his words
"Please," Ferdinand whispered. "It was nothing. A figment."
"Could a siren call up a storm like that?" one man asked.
Another spat. "Aye. They're full of black magic, them."
"Trust a lordling to bring down a demon on us," a low voice muttered.
Ferdinand turned sharply, looking over his shoulder at the weary faces behind him. They were livened now by the sport, their familial tolerance of him now turned to vicious glee.
"How much water did you say we had, Davies?" someone asked in a low voice.
The cook snorted, then spat over the side of the boat. "Ten days perhaps."
A sombre silence covered them.
"A fortnight to Brigid," someone ventured, echoing the sailing master's words.
"We'n might make it," another man offered, very quietly. "With one less mouth to wet."
Ferdinand's skin prickled. He was frozen, his fingers clamped around the oar. He was aware of every set of eyes in the boat trained upon him. Opening his mouth, Ferdinand found that he couldn't sleep, his throat stoppered. All he could do was stare up at Dutton's grim expression.
"We're no murderers," Dutton said quietly, and the muttering from the crew ceased. "Can you swim, Lordling?"
Tears pricked Ferdinand's eyes, burning in his skull. "Now—now just wait," he said, his voice thin and reedy. It suddenly felt as if there were not enough air, and he fought to catch a breath. "I am—F-Ferdinand von Aegir! I am on special dispensation by the Prime Minister, and it is imperative I get to Brigid!" An uncomfortable silence followed his words. Ferdinand could sense that he hadn't swayed them. "Y-your captain was paid handsomely to assure my safe passage to—"
"Our captain," Dutton spat, "had his head stoved in by a falling beam." He cast a baleful eye over Ferdinand, taking in his wet, bedraggled clothing. "Even if you had a coin about you, which any man here can see you don't, not even a lord can bribe a dead man."
"But," Ferdinand said desperately, tears beginning to spill down his cheeks. "When we reach Brigid—"
"If we reach it," one man interrupted, and the others jeered.
Ferdinand cast his gaze around, hoping for a sympathetic face. He found none. "This is madness," he hissed, looking back to the sailing master in desperation. "You cannot really mean to—" He stopped. He couldn't bring himself to say the words.
Dutton was stony-faced. "Like I said, Lordling. We're no murderers. You'll do us the kindness of steppin' over the side, nice and easy."
"I shall do no such thing," Ferdinand hissed. Even had he wished to, he couldn't have moved. His legs had turned to stone.
Dutton's face hardened. "I'm doing you the courtesy of askin' nicely, Ferdinand von Aegir. But this ain't a negotiation."
Ferdinand gritted his teeth. He didn't look round at the crews' murderous faces. He could sense them well enough. He supposed he should be grateful they'd done it to his face, rather than wait until he was sleeping to heave him over the side. It was only sporting of him to do the noble thing and step aside. It was that, or fight the whole job lot of them.
"Very well," he said, his voice coming with difficulty. "I—"
Before he could finish, he caught a flash of movement in the waves below. His eyes widened as he leaned toward the side of the boat to see. A long, thin black tail rippled through the waves, just below the surface, passing under the lifeboat before disappearing.
"We're none of us getting any younger here," Dutton said calmly.
"Alright, alright," Ferdinand said, allowing his anger to blaze through. He took a deep breath after, steadying himself. If he were to die, he would do it nobly. Shaking on his weary legs, he stood. "Good day, gentlemen. I pray we all meet in Brigid, where I will run each of you through with my sword."
Perhaps not noble, but memorable. To the sound of their jeering, he stepped over the edge of the boat and plunged into the frigid water.