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The Dragons of Winter
Sera looked up from her table in the back corner of the tavern to see a group of sailors come in. A slight chill swept in with them and the ancient ship’s bell that hung over the fireplace pealed the early arrival of winter on the lakes.
“The captain is crazy,” one of the sailors said.
“Keep your voice down,” one of the others said as they settled at a table near hers.
“Wench, a round of your best ale for the lads and I,” one of the men jiggled his purse at one of the serving girls.
Sera leaned further back into the shadows. She knew these men. They were off the Black Witch—a privateer ship that raided along the northern coast of the lakes. It was rumored her captain had made a deal with Kalkiolucue, an ancient sea goddess, to always protect his ship from the fury of the wind and waves. But, even with the divine protection, it was rumored the Captain of the Black Witch knew how to read the weather and seas better than most.
“Cap’n’s wanting to do a late season raid. Was told about a silver hoard hidden on the Sleeping Dragons,” another man said. “If you haven’t signed out at the harbor master’s an’ drew yer pay, you might still be contracted.”
“So we’d have no choice in the matter?”
“Aye. Unless, ye wish to forfeit the pay coming to ye by being found in breach of yer contract.”
Sera leaned forward a bit, pulling her hood down to hide her face and her elven ears. The Sleeping Dragons? The humans wouldn’t dare!
“He seems to think the Witch’s blessing will be enough to protect us against the magic of the elves.”
“Kalkiolicue is an elven goddess!”
Sera grinned softly. Yes, Kalkiolicue was an elven goddess. Nominally associated with the lakes, but humans referred to her as the Witch of Winter. The Captain of the Black Witch might have forged an agreement with the goddess-but she was capricious and the Sleeping Dragons were sacred to her.
Silence settled in the bar as most of the patrons turned to looked at the group. The use of Kalkiolicue’s name was considered an ill-omen by the humans.
Another man entered the tavern and Sera watched as he looked around, his gaze finally settling on the group at the table.
“Cap’n’s flying the Raven calling fer the crew to return.”
“I’ve signed the release at the harbor master’s, Mr. Kyle,” one of them said.
“Aye, that ye have Robert.” Kyle held up a piece of parchment. “However, none of the rest of ye have. Let’s go.”
“We’ll get along as soon as we finish our drinks, Mr. Kyle.”
“Drink fast and drink to the foam lads, Cap’n’s raising anchor within the hour.”
The group of men chuckled and all of them raised their mugs in salute then downed the bitter ale quickly.
Sera waited as the rest of the men at the table stood, and followed Kyle out of the tavern. Once the rest of the patrons went back to their own business, she stood, dropped a couple of coins on the table and quietly followed the group.
The scene that greeted her when Sera stepped out of the tavern was that of a mid-winter landscape—even though the winter solstice was still several weeks away. Winter rarely if ever came this early to the southern shores of the lakes.
Glancing around, she saw the streets were starting to fill with people staring at the white blanket covering the ground and the snow falling around them. Sera pulled her cloak tight around her and hurried toward the harbor and the ships currently docked there.
~ * ~
Sera stared at the man who stepped to the top of the gangplank. Dark haired, tall and slender, his hand rested on the hilt of the sword he wore and his black cloak whipped around him in the strong wind swirling through the area. All this Sera’s gaze took in and dismissed as she studied his face. His eyes were not the normal eyes of a human—this man had elven blood. His eyes were the same storm cast grey as her own.
“How many, Mr. Kyle?”
“Seventeen sir, counting myself. The rest refused. Said they had already fulfilled their contract, signed off and been paid. With the winter winds already blowing they said they would not be going out again until the weather cleared in spring.” Kyle paused and took a deep breath. “That included the pilot sir.”
“That’ll be enough, Mr. Kyle and the split will be the richer for it.” The Captain grinned at the group of men. “I’ll handle the wheel.”
Sera saw the Captain’s grey eyes flash silver as he glared at Kyle.
“Aye Mr. Kyle. I will be handling the wheel.”
Kyle stepped back and glanced at the men with him. The looks they shared told Sera these men didn’t have faith in their Captain as a pilot. She had been planning on trying to beat the Black Witch to the Dragons, but perhaps this was a better idea.
She removed a small jeweled pin from her pouch and forced it through the lobe of her left ear, while muttering softly. She grimaced as the magic surrounded her and she felt herself changing. The magic in the jewel should hold for about a month. Enough time to reach the Sleeping Dragons and disrupt their plans.
Sera glanced down at her hands. The spell had darkened her skin color. Her hands were rougher, the fingers shorter and her nails bitten and uneven.
“Excuse me Captain.” Sera stepped out the shadows. “If you be looking for a pilot—I be looking for a ship.”
“We be needing a competent pilot,” Kyle said. “Begging your pardon Cap’n. Ye be an outstanding Cap’n, but…” He let his voice trail off.
Sera bit her lip to fight the laugh she felt building up at the looks on both the Captain’s and Kyle’s face. The first was a look of anger and surprise, the second a look of fear.
“And who are you to say I am not a competent pilot.” Sera now stood toe to toe with Kyle and glared up at the big man.
Kyle ignored her and looked up at the Captain. “Sir?”
“With your permission.” He glanced down at Sera.
“The safest and shortest route to the ‘Foot of the Northern Star’.”
“Due north from the harbor for ten days then bear east until you sight the Eleven Isles. Skirt the north-western isle to the east, then approach along the shore maintaining careful watch for the rocks, shoals and reefs along the northern shore of the lake.” Sera smiled at the look on Kyle’s face. “The safest route takes half again the time of the fastest.”
“She’ll do Cap’n,” Kyle said returning Sera’s grin.
“Perhaps.” The Captain of the Black Witch walked down the gangplank; his cloak swirling behind him. Without warning he grabbed Sera’s hands and held them tightly.
“I sense magic here,” he said.
The rest of the group stepped away from the Captain and Sera.
“Aye, that you do,” she said. “My grandmother was from the Eleven Isles. I have a small ability to read and influence the weather.”
“What I’m sensing is not a small ability—but I’ll give you a chance. With the winter winds arriving this early; having a weather witch with us might be useful. However,” his hands tightened on hers with a crushing strength. “If I find out you are lying to me you will regret it.”
Sera dropped her eyes and winced. She nodded to make sure he had no reason to suspect anything. “Aye, Captain…” she let her voice trail off.
“Just Captain, Miss…?”
“Aye.” She smiled at the Captain.
“Mr. Kyle, assign Star to a cabin.” He turned and headed back up the gangplank. “And Mr. Kyle…” he paused. “No one is to bother her. Do you understand?”
“Aye Cap’n.” Kyle nodded to Sera and gestured for her to board the ship. “The rest of you lake rats,” he bellowed. “Get aboard and ye heard the Cap’n.”
A chorus of ayes followed Sera up the gangplank.