The Maiden Ship – Micheline Ryckman

Dain watched the waves flip up between the wooden cracks of the boardwalk as he counted his steps by twos. The air smelled of salt and fish. He hated fish. Leaning back, he tried again to loose his fingers, but his father’s grasp remained unyielding. If only he could free himself. If only he could run. The pace quickened, and Dain lifted his chin in response to a more urgent tug on his arm. Looking ahead, he spied it—the green-and-gold galleon. Their new home . The mainmast climbed to the salmon skies, and the sails hung larger than clouds. The ship bobbed impatiently on the harbor waves like it couldn’t wait to take him away. Dain tried to keep the quiver from his lip as he read the dark, sprawling letters inlaid along the freshly painted flank: The Maiden. The gossip of the manor staff had been rampant for weeks prior to Dain’s departure.

Even Nurse Lydia had partaken in the whisperings. He’d been squatting beneath the workbench, stolen sweet roll in hand, when she’d entered the kitchens with the upstairs maid. Her beryl eyes had been wide, and he remembered the insistent tone of her voice. “My brother works the twilight shifts at the harbor, and you know he’s always been trustworthy. He told me that The Maiden’s been docked in Aalta for decades, and despite years of weather, the ship remains the same. Never a mark of wear on it.” Nurse Lydia swiped one hand over the top of the other—a superstitious sign Dain had seen her do countless times before. She added another for what seemed like good measure as she leaned in toward the maid. “But that’s not the most unsettling part. On nights when the three moons are full, many a watchman has spied a figure floating around those decks. Some believe it’s the departed soul of Mariette Ulsman—she was a victim of the grisly Pier Three Murders. They say her ghost remains to seek revenge.

” The maid dropped her armload of linens to raise slim fingers up to her mouth. “Do you really believe that? Then . why would the master buy it?” Nurse Lydia’s bright copper curls bounced as she shook her head. “He hasn’t been right since the mistress died. He’s told everyone he needs that ship for his business”—she squinted her eyes, and lowered her voice further—“but I’d swear there’s more to it than that.” After the mention of his mother’s death, Dain had lost interest. It had been too hard to listen to others talk about her. He’d even dropped the sweet roll as he’d quietly crawled away. The ghost story, however, had not been so easily abandoned, and now it preyed upon his mind as he topped the boarding plank. His father promptly dropped his hand to leave Dain standing alone among the bustling crew.

All around him, whistles blew, crates crashed, men shouted, and gulls cried. The noise deafened him. The smell of fish gagged him. Knees wobbling, he fixated on his father’s retreating back, and vaguely wondered how it would feel to call him “Captain.” His father was known as the merchant king of Aalta; he was the aristocratic businessman on high, and while the man had studied ships, he’d never been aboard one. The same went for Dain, and even worse, it seemed his first might be haunted. A breeze whipped around him as he clenched his fists open and closed. His nails began to bite into his skin, but he ignored the sting as he watched his father’s form disappear in the throng. Dain’s urge to run returned. Maybe he still had time to get back to Lydia.

Just as he turned back toward the plank, a figure stepped in front of him. His gaze started at the man’s boots, then traveled the long distance up, passing over his green-andgold tunic, to look into the sailor’s charcoal eyes. Dain was a full nine years old, and Lydia had told him recently how much he’d grown, but right now, faced with this giant, he felt like a mouse. The sailor was massive. His ebony skin glistened in the spring sunshine, and his long, black dreadlocks swayed behind his shoulders as he chuckled. His laugh was rich, textured and deep. The sound reminded Dain of his mother’s favorite fabric, a plum velveteen. “Are ye the Captain’s lad?” Dain swallowed, but didn’t respond. A knowing smile spread wide across the giant’s face. “I’m Morgan Crouse, yer father’s first mate.

Ye can call me Mo. And I’m here to tell ye, there ain’t a thing to fear about The Maiden, lad. She’s a worthy mistress. Ye may not believe it now, but she’ll soon feel like home to us all.” He bent low, hands resting on his knees as he looked Dain directly in the eye. “Maybe ye need to explore a bit?” Like a key springing a lock, the man’s kind words and invitation moved Dain to speak. “Do you mean—is it safe?” The sailor stood, sweeping his arms open in a wide, welcoming arc. “Aye lad, entirely safe. Take a look around. Yer free to fly wherever ye please.

” Dain’s lip stopped quivering, his fists loosed, and his eyes began to dart from prow to stern. Then, he bolted. He could hear the sailor’s laugh grow distant behind him as he ran. For a time, Dain forgot about the manor. He forgot about Nurse Lydia, the haunted tales, the noise, and even the smell of fish. He scaled every unoccupied ladder, finding that some led to upper decks while others led to the quarters below. He flew down long corridors lined with doorways. He couldn’t resist the knobs, nor the fresh bunks that begged him to bounce and the open portholes that tempted him to holler. The empty hull made his voice echo, and the free-hanging hammocks swung with the waves. It was a long while before he surfaced on deck again, but when he did, Dain ditched his boots and dodged sailors, ropes, and riggings as he slid his socked feet along the polished decks.

The big sailor had been right. The Maiden wasn’t so bad— A few glides led him to the bow, where he noticed a great statue of a lady fixed upon the prow. Why had he not seen her before? Her hair streamed back behind her in long, wooden waves, and like everything else on board, her details were fresh and realistically crafted. Dain marveled at how each part of the ship was in perfect condition. Even the barnacles that scaled the hulls of every other vessel in the harbor seemed to shy away from clinging to The Maiden. As he continued to stare at the wooden maid’s solemnly carved features, he realized that she reminded him of someone. A storybook character, perhaps? His chest tightened, Nurse Lydia had always been good at telling stories—he’d spent countless hours on her knee while she’d brought tale after tale to life. Like his mother, those days were now gone . The wind tousled his hair, and Dain’s chest loosed a little as his gaze broke from the wooden maid to follow a breeze-blown gull toward the horizon. The distant salmon skies dipped over the rim of the sea, and for the first time since boarding, he wondered where the waves might take him.

CHAPTER 1 Dain squinted at the bare bit of stubble along the sharp line of his jaw. The small cabin mirror tilted with the waves. Bending his head to match the angle, he rubbed at his chin and wondered if anyone would call him a sailor worth his salt. After eight long years aboard The Maiden, Mo’s long-ago words had never come to pass—Dain had never felt at home. Gull cries pierced the cabin walls. Hurriedly splashing water over his face, Dain reminded himself that there was no need to dwell on the past any longer. Today, if everything went according to plan, he’d soon have a true place to belong. ✽✽✽ The first mate stood at the helm, wheel in hand, as he tested the winds, referred to his compass, and periodically called orders to his men. His pale green tunic was trimmed with gold, matching The Maiden’s colors. Every officer wore gold and green, including the captain—it was a mark of their station aboard the ship.

Dain snaked his way through the busy throng to stand by Mo’s side. Turning, he saw the small, rugged island of Tallooj just beyond a teeming bay. The cove was cluttered with colorful ships from all four corners of the known world, and the distant hum of people wove itself into the chorus of gull cries above. As The Maiden drew nigh, the briny air filled with scents of spice, livestock, sweat, and fish. Dain still hated fish, but the scents of civilization were welcome. Rubbing at his nose, he looked beyond the harbor to the small, thatched-roofed town nestled among the island hills. If the sparse tales were true, Port Tallooj was nothing to write home about, but no matter how much a sailor loved the open waves, he eventually longed for land. Even land like this one. Shifting his attention to Mo, Dain saw that the first mate was looking down at him, appraising. “Ye know lad, I do believe the sea has gone and scrubbed away that boy I once knew, and in his place it’s left behind a tried-and-true sailor.

” He smiled up at Mo. Even now, with Dain on the brink of adulthood, the man still towered over him. “You always know exactly what I need to hear, my friend.” A mischievous glint glimmered in Mo’s eyes. “And now that yer a real sailor, ye’ll be needing a nickname.” Mo flipped his compass twice in his palm, as though pretending to mull the question over. “I think I’ll call ye, ‘The Lion of the Sea.’” Dain snorted. “Has there ever been a time you didn’t follow up a compliment with a poke, Morgan Crouse? I’m the farthest thing there is from a lion.” The breeze shuffled around them playfully.

It tugged Dain’s hair free from its leather tie, and the wild blond strands flew fast into his face. Mo burst into a peal of rich, velvet laughter. Dain didn’t even bother trying to tame his hair—the irony was too perfect. He simply defended his locks. “I’ll have you know, sir, that every time I’ve been back to Aalta, Lydia says that my wild hair is the perfect compliment to my stormy gray eyes.” “I think yer childhood nurse just loves ye too much to tell ye to get a haircut.” “Ah, not so, Mo. Lydia isn’t afraid to speak her mind about anything.” This time it was Dain’s turn to give Mo a mischievous look, and he added a wink through his hair for good measure. “I think you’d find her a formidable match.

” Mo’s deep baritone filled with further mirth. “Are ye trying to set me up, lad?” Dain crossed his arms over his chest. “Me? Play matchmaker? I know nothing of courtship, sir.” Mo clapped Dain on the back, following his gaze. “Never a truer word was spoken.” Dain tried to look insulted, but he couldn’t commit. Mo’s statement was truer than true—he had no experience with women. The man squeezed his shoulder. “Eager for some leave, lad?” Dain shoved at his tangled mat of hair, but the wind resisted by pushing it right back into his face. “Yes, but this is not just regular leave for me, Mo.

This is it. This is my chance. Maybe I’ll buy an inn —or a farm, who knows. But soon, very soon, I’ll finally be off this ship. ” The big sailor’s hand dropped away. “Aye, lad. I suppose. Ye’ve had yer plans set a long while, and I expect that ye’ll do good by them.” Mo cleared his throat roughly before he changed the subject. “A word of caution, though.

Tallooj is a tough port. Be on yer toes.” Dain fingered the dagger at his belt. “I’ve heard the crew talk, and you’ve taught me well. I’ll be fine.” The first mate slipped into a knowing chuckle. Dain thought perhaps he heard a hint of pride in his big friend’s laughter. He looked up at Mo again. “I do wonder why my father chose to resupply here? There are certainly more desirable ports—some less than three hundred leagues.” Before Mo could reply, the air buffeted behind them.

The sails grew full with the final gust needed to set The Maiden well into port. As soon as the wind settled, Mo blew the whistle and sent the crew flying fast to trim the sails and weigh anchor. The first mate kept his eyes ahead. “Ye came on deck just in time to lend me the favor of the winds, lad. Now we’re properly set to port.” Dain wasn’t surprised that the first mate had dodged his question about Tallooj—the man rarely commented on the captain’s decisions—but Dain wasn’t pleased with the alternate response. “I think you need to leave off on that superstition, Mo. The crew is starting to believe you. I can’t have the mates thinking I’m some kind of phenomenon.” Dain issued the words in a jesting fashion, but in truth, it really was beginning to get uncomfortable.

If even a glimpse of a storm threatened, the sailors were there to practically drag him up on deck as their good luck charm. One sailor had even had the audacity to wake him up in the middle of the night. The thing was, his presence seemed to work every time—the weather always settled when he was up there. All coincidence, surely, but the crew’s faith in him was escalating, and the superstition was getting out of hand. Most concerningly, Dain knew that the minute it didn’t work, he was going to be the one to blame. Mo gave another velvet laugh before blowing the whistle and loudly commanding the rowboats down. Once the order was obeyed, the first mate leaned his massive form toward Dain. “I’m convinced that there’s never any harm in a little something to believe in.” Dain rolled his eyes. “You know, with all those wise phrases you have stored up inside that head of yours, you’d make a great carnival act.

” The first mate gave a loud bark. “There may be coin in that idea, lad.” A shift in crew movements called attention to the fact that the captain was now up on deck. Dain’s fists clenched, and his back instinctively stiffened. Since the death of his mother, Dain’s father had become an unrelenting tutor. The studies he imposed on Dain were rigorous, mistakes were unacceptable, and errors usually resulted in discipline. When the captain wasn’t drilling or disciplining him, the man remained aloof and indifferent, typically cooped up alone in his chambers poring over maps, books, and ledgers. Besides merchant-related business, Dain never quite understood what his father studied. What he did know was that whatever occupied his time had and always would be more important to him than his own son. Dain couldn’t wait to be rid of him.

Captain Alloway’s voice carried across the decks. “Are we secure, Mr. Crouse?” Mo’s voice carried further. “Aye, Captain, the crew should already have the boats waiting.” “Thank you. I will be on the first one out to port. Appoint the appropriate guard, and follow directly with the cargo.” “Aye, Captain.” Willing his fingers to relax, Dain nodded a goodbye to Mo, then stepped down to the lower deck to follow his father. The captain rounded on him.

“Where exactly are you headed?” The abrupt assault caused Dain to stammer. “Well—Captain, I have earned my leave and—” “Not this time, sailor. Port Tallooj is no place for a boy.” His father turned sharply, making for the ladder. Several crew members clambered to help their captain down, and in mere seconds he was out of sight. Dain stood for a moment in stunned silence. A boy? After months at sea, working hard to earn this leave, Dain wasn’t going to stand for this exclusion, and he definitely wasn’t going to stand for being called a boy. Fists clenched once more, he lunged for the ladder, but anger blinded him to the pile of rope at his feet. His right boot tip caught the coil with full force, and Dain tumbled headlong into one of the busy sailors. There was some jesting and hearty laughter from those nearby as the older sailor slammed to the deck with a groan and Dain flew back hard in the opposite direction.

The prostrate man growled loudly. “Ye need to start seeing what’s right in front of yer nose, lad.” The closest sailors yelped in good-humored agreement. When Dain managed to get to his feet, a strong hand latched upon his arm. He turned to see Mo, holding him fast. “Yer father knows what’s best for ye, lad.” Dain wrenched his arm loose and rounded on the first mate. “My father is barely half a man these days, with even less of a heart. He knows nothing.” Dain knew he should stop, but he couldn’t help himself.

“This was it, Mo. It’ll be months before the next port. My cargo will be spoiled, and I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for. This was my chance to leave this bobbing prison. This was my chance to start fresh and build a real life. A life far away from The Maiden, and far away from my father.” He spit his last words out like venom—he didn’t care who heard. Mo’s response was soft. “I am truly sorry, lad. I’ll take yer wares into Tallooj myself.

I’ve not the same ways as ye when it comes to merchandising, but I’ll do my best. I wish I could do more, but it’s my place to enforce the captain’s orders. And it’s yer place to follow them.” Dain threw his hands in the air. “Damn his orders, Mo!”


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