The Ferryman and the Sea Witch Excerpt

In a land on the brink of war, Gryff Worden finds his life slaughtered in the farmyard. Mortally wounded he stumbles upon a timekeeper, a woman who tracks the infinite paths of each life. She offers him a sunwield, a medallion that

The merrow rule the sea. Slender creatures, fair of face, with silver scales and the graceful tails of angelfish. Caught in a Brid Clarion net, the daughter of the sea witch perishes in the sunlit air. Her fingers dangle above the swells.

The queen of the sea bares her sharp teeth and, in a fury of wind and waves, cleanses the brine of ships and men. But she spares a boy for his single act of kindness. Callum becomes the Ferryman, and until Brid Clarion pays its debt with royal blood, only his sails may cross the Deep.

Two warring nations, separated by the merrow’s trench, trade infant hostages in a commitment to peace. Now, the time has come for the heirs to return home. The Ferryman alone can undertake the exchange.

Yet, animosities are far from assuaged. While Brid Clarion’s islands bask in prosperity, Haf Killick, a floating city of derelict ships, rots and rusts and sinks into the reefs. Its ruler has other designs.

And the sea witch crafts dark bargains with all sides.

Callum is caught in the breach, with a long-held bargain of his own which, once discovered, will shatter this life.

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Prologue

The hemp net hung from the boom above the waves. Within its lattice of pinched knots, the slender merrow baked in the heated air. She had ceased her struggle while the sun tilted up and shadows pooled on the deck. Her graceful tail with its angelfish fins dangled from the end of her confinement. Beyond the reach of her fingers, swells rose and fell. Taunting, seductive. Rhythmic as they sloshed against the hull.

Gulls shrilled in circles above the ship.

Like a storm-torn sail, the tip of the merrow’s tangled hair dipped into the sea with each crest, shed droplets with each trough. The creature wept for her kind, for the sea breathing beneath her, a thin and desolate sound. The mournful plea filled Callum’s young head, overwhelmed the clamor of merriment arising from the Brid Clarion officers who’d captured her in their mesh.

“We should free her.” Callum drew his fish-knife. “She’s dying. They’re killing her.”

 “I spoke my mind, boy.” The brig’s captain laid a firm hold on Callum’s scrawny shoulder. “Put away the blade. It’s not our place to chart the course of another man’s conscience.”

Callum bit off a retort certain to earn him a scolding. The captain had treated him kindly, hired him on as a cabin boy, and freed him from the oily bilges of Haf Killick. By the graybeard’s good grace, Callum earned a wage. At fourteen years, he scoffed down oranges dripping with sticky juice and learned a skill that would save him from ever returning to the bowels of the relic city.

He held tight to a hundred reasons not to endanger the ship or her crew, not to interfere with the amusement of those who served in the king’s war. Well-heeled officers bantered and drank gin at the bow. How could they plug their ears to the keening cries? Pretend her torment didn’t matter?

The merrow’s sorrow twisted Callum’s stomach. The unbearable lament dredged up memories of his mother’s death in a bleak hold and his helplessness to ease her suffering.

He ducked out of the grizzled man’s grip and hauled a bucket of water from the sea. Below him, the merrow’s copper scales baked and bristled into gray flakes. They fluttered to the surface like shed petals. He splashed the water along the length of her body and tossed the bucket into the waves for more. It wouldn’t be enough. Only the sea held the power to save her.

 He drew the bucket up by its line. Movement between the swells snapped him upright, and he shielded his eyes from the sun. “Captain, the merrow are coming.”

The old man fumbled for his spyglass and pressed it to his eye. “The sea witch.” He slapped the device into Callum’s hand. “Watch her.”

“Cut away the net,” Callum pleaded. “It’s not too late.”

“You may get your wish,” the captain said over his shoulder. He strode across the deck to the admiral’s celebration.

Callum focused the spyglass on the witch. Blood drained from his face, and his mouth turned dry as sand. She swam through the wind-scoured waves, the spines of her fins slicing the water. Her tail undulated like a serpent. White-lipped rage hollowed her cheeks and sharpened the angles of her face. Nictating membranes hooded her unnatural black eyes against the sunlight’s shimmer. Three merrow trailed in her wake, their voices weaving into a ghostly dirge.

And with them came the wind. A strange amassing and curving of clouds rose out of nowhere. The sky bloomed with a greenish glow, drenching the brig in the eerie twilight foretelling a storm.

Callum clung to the rigging as the Brid Clarion officers pulled pistols from their belts. With frantic intensity, they shared a powder horn, loaded their lead, and rammed it tight. The captain pleaded his case with wringing hands, but they brushed him aside. The men marched to the gunwale, sighted along their barrels, and fired.

Lightning flashed in reply. The approaching merrow plunged beneath the waves. Callum yelled his warning, “Captain, they’re diving.”

The captain swore. He climbed to the helm and bellowed orders as Callum searched the waves, the spyglass forgotten. The sea witch’s silver tail slashed through the swelling brine like the stroke of a knife. Fins rippled along her body in a feverish dance. She disappeared beneath the hull.

Callum froze with the crew and officers, silent, waiting, the seconds unspooling like a weaver’s thread. A harsh scraping sound cut into the bow. It raked across the keel to the stern, sparing neither the flowery anemones nor sea-greens that clung to the ship’s belly.

Chaos erupted. Jacks shouted in panic as water sprayed into the hold. The captain’s orders to plug the leaks competed with the admiral’s demand for more gunpowder.

The sea witch breached the waves. She grasped the net and sliced it with a coral blade. A hail of shot littered the sea. Iron rounds speared the water. They thudded into the merrow dying in the net.

A fierce scream of grief and fury shrilled from the witch. Callum caught his breath as she slashed at the net. The sky’s whirling cauldron mirrored the turbulence in his belly. Behind her, the waves bloated. A wall of water mounded in the distance and raced toward the ship like a winter gale. Lightning flashed with a sharp crack. The echoing rumble shook the deck.

“I’m cutting her free,” Callum yelled at the storm. Fish-knife in his grip, he climbed the bulwark. Wind battered his body. He hung onto the rigging and leaned over the water. His knife swiped at the net. Once, twice. The monstrous wave curled and crashed. Another slice. Lines frayed and snapped. The net splashed into the sea.

A mountain of white froth roared into him. He crashed to the deck, tumbled, and pounded into a mast. Pain burst in his ankle. His reserve of breath blew from his lungs. The watery world tipped and rolled. Sparks flared in his eyes as something smashed his face. From every direction, the groan and crack of the wreck assaulted his ears. He kicked against the hull, chasing his bubbles. A sail trapped him beneath the surface like an iron lid. Lungs on fire, he grasped a tangle of rigging and, hand over hand, hauled himself to the sail’s frayed hem.

Mouth open, he burst to the surface of the littered sea for a desperate breath. Something gripped his ankle. A male merrow with jet hair streaming behind him drew Callum down like an anchor. Callum pried at the pale fingers grinding his bones.

Shattered wood rained around him with gear and cargo. Air bubbles ascended in pearly strands. Above him, sails wallowed as desperate men grappled for flotsam, and bodies sank like ghosts torn from their white shrouds.

Callum gave up the fight, the merrow’s grip unforgiving. The sea grew muted and green. From the gloom, the sea witch bared her teeth, tail sweeping the water like a silk fan. Behind her, three merrow bore the sun-bleached body of their kin down to rest among the coral for the crabs to pick clean.

Vengeance burned in the witch’s inky eyes. Blood red hair, woven with seaweed, billowed around her head like a dusky cloud. “Drown them all,” she said, her unspoken command bursting in his head.

Merrow swam from the Deep, both male and female, beautiful and deadly. Jacks flailed and kicked, breathed water, and bucked. Coral blades flashed, clouding the water. Sharks ghosted in to feed. As Callum’s vision faded, a hazy shape materialized in the gloom, his ship descending into the fathomless Deep as if riding on a slanted sea.

Drowsiness coiled around him. Consciousness slipped away.

And he inhaled.

Air rushed into his lungs. Someone embraced him, a mouth on his. His eyes snapped open. He jerked away. The merrow clutched his head in her palms and yanked him back into the horrific kiss. He held her by the upper arms, at once pushing her away and craving her breath.

“Breathe,” she said inside his head, her melodious voice a softly curling tide. Without a sound passing between them, he heard her command as clear as a ship’s bell.

He gulped air, pulling it from her body as if his lungs would never draw enough. His thundering heart slowed.

“Why?” he asked, the word unspoken.

She responded with a sense of confusion.

“Why help me?”

She backed away, hair swirling with the blue luminescence of a jellyfish. High cheekbones cast shadows on her pale cheeks. She studied him with eyes like black shells, and her full lips thinned into a stern line as if to hide their softness.

Her ambivalence pulsed into his mind. Gossamer tentacles swirled from the end of her tail like a frilly gown, and her opalescent scales shifted colors in the thin light. Three pink gills on either side of her ribs rippled with the water’s movement. “You aided my sister.”

Her loss swept over him, along with his need for a breath. As though she sensed his desperation, her lips met his in a gentle, open-mouthed kiss. His first true kiss and bound to mark the strangest of his life, if not his last. Her tail pulsed against his legs as they rose. He surrendered to her control, no longer fighting the strange undulation of her body.

When they broke the surface, she pushed him away, flipped her tail, and dove. He threw his head back and inhaled the wind into his lungs. The storm had passed. Clouds peeled back to reveal an empty sea but for the brig’s debris bobbing in the tranquil waves. He swam to a raft of floating dunnage and hung on. “Ahoy!”

No reply.

He hadn’t drowned, but breath didn’t guarantee survival. The ship had anchored at the edge of the Deep, leagues and leagues from either Brid Clarion or Haf Killick, far enough that he’d perish long before he paddled the distance.

The sea stirred as a menacing shape slithered through the scattered flotsam. Callum drew up his legs, the presence of sharks fresh in his memory. The sea witch surfaced. Urchin’s spines fanned from her temples and forehead in a prickly crown. Muscle threaded her arms, her body slim but bold-boned, skin drawn tight across her cheeks and throat. Her hair glimmered with pearls and beads of abalone, bewitching if not for the malevolence in her hooded eyes.

“Naris tells me you are worth saving,” she said, her voice low and full of sea whispers. She swam in a languid circle around him. “What do they call you?”

“Callum, my lady.”

The sea witch twitched a smile, revealing a row of sharp teeth. “You may call me Panmar.” She rolled onto her back with the slipperiness of an eel. Her fins and tail carved the waves, sparkling in the sun’s glare. “You cut my daughter free, but you delayed. You lacked courage. She died for your cowardice.”

The witch’s daughter? Callum’s fingers dug into the makeshift raft. He nodded but held his tongue. No words of remorse could justify or erase the truth, and his face burned with shame.

The sea witch sank beneath the waves and surfaced beside him, so close he tasted life and death on her breath. “I offer you a bargain, mortal. Accept or drown.”