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CHAPTER ONE

Where I am is where I’ve always been,
but what I see has changed.

They cut us free somewhere near the Gulf of Caines. The water dark, the moon nothing but a sliver and the stars clouded as the ship’s canvas swelled with an easterly that took it far into the distance within precious little time. Left me rocking in a skiff, alone, but for the limp form of my companion—a man weathered by the sun and salt with a still-seeping gash under his left eye.

I calculated I had three days. If I were lucky. Though, luck had never been on my side, especially not recently.

That first long night, shivering in the unfettered ocean wind and my hunger for revenge keeping the pangs in my stomach at bay, I resisted the urge to dump that man overboard. I wasn’t sure why. Could just be I was so preoccupied by that fading black smudge on the horizon. Plus, I’ve never been one to handle loneliness well. And even a man condemned by his brothers for a traitorous nature was better company than the tang of salt spraying into my face whenever the skiff smacked on the downside. The fact he was also attractive despite the cut didn’t hurt either and I admit to dreaming of wringing a few good moments out of life with him before we succumbed.

Besides, I figured a dead man in the water brought sharks faster.

Dawn found me hunched in the stern, tired because I’d kept jerking awake, sore, since finding comfort in the wooden edges of the skiff was impossible. I gingerly raised myself high enough so I could scan the horizon. Nothing but morning color on one side and the violet haze of a relenting night on the other.

The boat pitched then, slamming my head into the side. I cursed like the sailors I’d been traveling with, calling out to that living, breathing leviathan believed to be responsible for every death upon the waves. My voice cracked, loud enough I must have woken the other man.

He groaned and twisted, his knee rising and his hand moving for his head. I settled within the stern once more and observed him as he fumbled his way to a sitting position, his hand missing the edge of the skiff once before he focused. As intelligence sparked in his eyes, the fog of unconsciousness slow to release him, he narrowed his gaze at me.

“Yer the cartographer? The grunt who made the star charts that led us astray?”

I shrugged, striving for a carelessness, but my heart hammered behind my rib cage like a fleet-footed deer and I reminded myself that not every sailor took up with men simply because their prospects were slim.

His stare turned more intense, as if he could see right past my feeble attempts to project some form of unconcern. “I’m curious,” he said, in a tone that said he wasn’t truly curious, but wanted an excuse to mock me. “Was ya purposefully leadin’ us wrong or are ya simply that inept?”

Affronted, I said, “My charts were fine. And considering they’re left in the care of the sailing master instead of dumped in here with us, I presume he knows that.”

The man cracked a sliver of a smile. “Ya’d argue ta the death over their accuracy despite sendin’ us so far from the Giant’s Belt. So tell me, where are we?”

“Given you likely know the ocean currents better than I, I was hoping you’d be able to answer that.”

“The stars did nah speak ta ya all night?”

“It was cloudy.”

He laughed bitterly. “Of course it were.”

“It was,” I protested, though I sounded like a petulant child, insisting on an excuse to free myself from punishment. I quickly staunched my whining and pressed my lips together in a thin, insincere smile.

The man hefted himself onto the thwart at the bow end of the skiff, the position putting him at an angle so I was forced to look up at him. At least with the sun at my back he was mostly within the light, which gave me a full view of the tattoos running along his shaved head. On one side the black markings were of a wicked looking sea serpent, crudely done, and low on the other curled smoke-like lines that I assumed represented the misty maidens who populated the sea between the continents.

He had a number of small scars across the side of his neck, as if shrapnel from a shattered bulkhead had embedded there once. His pale eyes were hooded from too much squinting in the sunlight, but had a piercing quality to them that only added to his intensity. His hands, rough and weathered like the rest of him, gripped the sides of the skiff as if he were prepared to launch at me at a second’s notice.

We were opposites, him and I.

Me with my hands soft and stained with ink rather than callused from rope burn. Me with none of the hardness he possessed. None of the decades’ worth of experience of facing down the fickle nature of the sea and its deadly inhabitants.

“What’s yer name?” he demanded.

I straightened as best I could. “Edwin Vlaris.”

“Sounds like yer from the mainland. Son of some aristocrat or heir ta a merchant chain.”

“Working class, actually,” I said quietly. “My mother was a housecleaner and my father a laborer. Died in a mineshaft when the pulleys broke and dropped the load because the lord refused to refit.”

“‘How’d ya get ta be a crappy cartographer then?” The man hadn’t taken his eyes off me, the scrutiny grating on my peace of mind.

“My mother sold me into an apprenticeship.”

He snorted. “Do nah sound so aggrieved. There are worse things ta be sold inta.”

I swallowed. “And you are?”

“Ben. Ben Keel.” Then he finally turned away from me and scanned the horizon, squinting when he looked eastward where the sun was finishing its dawn parade.

“They called you a traitor.”

“I’m sure the swabs said worse than that.”

“They did,” I answered softly. “What did you do?”

Ben’s lip rose in a sneer. “Did nah kill a man when I had the chance.”

I decided not to pursue that and instead focused on climbing onto the stern’s cracked bench. I had to brace myself, the pitted wood creaking under my weight. But I looked out over the ocean, following Ben’s lead.

Ben nodded. “We’re driftin’ north, northeast most like. Current takes a swell around the reefs so it’s possible we might have been dragged westward, but doubtful given how far from the mainland we were when The Torrent tossed us.”

My marginal hope dwindled. I clutched the edge of the skiff until splinters pricked my fingers. “You don’t think we’ve entered the gulf?”

Ben glanced at me, brow raised. “We would have had ta come up from the south for the current ta pull us in. Nah, we’re either headin’ ‘cross the tip of the continent or, more likely, were pulled further out ta sea. Too far south ta have any hope of driftin’ inta a ship goin’ to or from the Verdant Towers and too far north from the merchant line that heads from the Giant’s Belt.” His expression darkened. “We’ve ya ta thank for that.”

I stiffened in annoyance. “I was strictly commissioned to determine the most likely area where the isles of the Giant’s Whip lay, not the well-known whereabouts of the Belt.”

Ben turned toward me so fast that his eyes quite literally flashed when the sun reflected in them for just a split second. “Yah, but everyone knows they lie near the Belt. Ya took us so far north it’s a wonder ya ever get paid for yer shoddy workmanship.”

“I spent months researching every chart I could get my hands on and studying every story ever told about anything to do with those isles before I even drew one line, so don’t tell me I’ve shoddy workmanship!” My voice echoed out over the sea. Stolen by the wind.

“Ya were listenin’ ta the wrong stories then,” said Ben in a rough voice.

“Or maybe every sailor is so sure about his stories that not a single one of them stop to think logically for a single bloody second. Maybe then you’d be able to figure that if the isles were truly that close to the Giant’s Belt then they’d have been surely found by now.” I shook from anger, misplaced as it was since the people I hated most were still safe aboard The Torrent and far from here. After all, it hadn’t been Ben who’d tossed me into an old skiff and left me to die in the middle of the ocean.

Ben glared at me for another moment, but then his expression cleared and he chuckled darkly under his breath. “Ah, I guess I should be grateful for the company, shouldn’t I? Gives me somethin’ nice ta look at.”

My groin gave the weakest of pulses at that comment, but rather than excitement, I mostly felt relief that I might have lucked into someone who shared my proclivities and wouldn’t be inclined to pummel me for them. “I could have tossed you over to drown,” I muttered. “If you want to be grateful about something, be grateful I didn’t.”

That just made his eyes crinkle in good humor. “Regret that now, do ya?”

I ignored him and stared into the water as it splashed up against the side of the skiff. Droplets beaded on the back of my hand, salt making my skin itch. Then we steadied, gently rocking in the great expanse of nothingness. Surrounded by a teaming ecosystem, yet with zero ability to find advantage within it. I sagged.

There wasn’t much to do on that boat as the sun marched its way into a mid-morning position. Ben and I gave each other the silent treatment, though I caught him staring many times. I returned to my position in the stern and pressed my sluggish brain for topographic details I’d painstakingly drawn numerous times. I drew them on the cracked stern thwart with my finger, the wood catching at my skin. It kept me from concentrating on the emptiness in my stomach or the thirst growing in my throat.

“What stories?” asked Ben randomly.

He hadn’t spoken loudly, but he startled me nonetheless. I didn’t have enough energy to jerk though, not with the sun trekking across the sky above our heads and the salty sea air stealing the moisture from my mouth. I cleared my throat and swallowed against the dryness, but only managed to look confused at the question.

“Ya mentioned ya’d heard all the stories ‘bout the Isles of the Giant’s Whip. What stories?”

I left off on my colorless drawing and slouched gracelessly against the stern. “The original ones that most know. About the ship The Flightless with its aviary of great renown, full of powerful birds and feathered creatures. How it’d been on its way to the mainland from the Giant’s Belt and got caught in a storm. Destroyed, though no one knows its final resting place. Many of the birds found sanctum at a string of tiny islands and flourished.”

“Everyone knows that story,” said Ben dismissively. “The Flightless were only a couple days out, which is why the rocks those birds settled upon have ta be close. Nah this far north.”

“There were others though,” I said, choosing not to respond to Ben’s subtle accusation. “About how the storm was a southwester and chased The Flightless north before the ship couldn’t outrun it any longer. And that the man who owned the aviary released some of the birds before the storm hit and they would have sought protection from the gusts.”

“No one survived. Those stories are merely fanciful projection.”

“And what of the ones of sailors seeing the storm birds light the sky at night as they wing their way eastward? Or tales of the gryphons occasionally landing against the foremasts? I collected as many accounts of those happenings as I could and based on where those birds headed when they took flight, it makes sense that they’d be living far more north than anyone ever suspected.”

Ben tugged his shirt free and draped it over his head so that it covered his dark tattoos and most of his shoulders. His chest, heavily tanned from years on the sea, flexed as he wrapped his arm around a knee and shifted so that his body cast a shadow across his stomach. I watched unabashed despite having little desire to move.

Then he gave me a measured look and said, “Go on. I’m in the mood for fairy tales since reality is a little dry at the moment.”

I knew I merely took his mind off our deadly predicament, but it felt nice to talk, even if my companion didn’t respond much. He stared attentively though, when he wasn’t scanning the horizon for a trace of who knew what. He kept the tiniest of wry curves to his lips, but he didn’t speak his disbelief out loud again.

I told the story of the trio of storm birds that sent lightning across the deck of a six-gun merchant vessel during an intricate mating dance. It’d sent the crew into shocks and fits, many of them shaking like children’s rag dolls and a few of them—the ones too close—crisped, the water from their eyes sizzling.

The tale about the tiny flame-tail seabird, who set fire to every sail aboard a four-masted warship belonging to the Empire, made Ben grin wickedly. I used my hands to show the size and shape of the bird that had been described to me by one of the crew. Scarcely the distance from the tip of my thumb to the far base of my palm and yet the little creature had nearly crippled one of the most powerful ships to sail the seas.

I spoke of ocean-colored crooners with drooping plumage whose shed feathers blossomed into tiny fruit trees along the portside of a trawler. Of ivory tail-feathers that sprinkled snow and froze the stays. Of the morphing swallow that somehow snuck within a hold where it died mid-change, its top half the color of a cloudy sky, its bottom mimicking the brown grain of the bulkhead.

I paused right in the middle of one story as my tongue grew heavy from constant use. “How long do you think we have?”

Ben blinked slowly, as if returning from far away. “No water makes our chances of seein’ a third sunrise like the one this mornin’ slim. Do nah worry, though. Before it comes ta that, I’ll take care of ya.”

“Take care of me?”

He made a twisting motion with his hands, like he were wringing the neck of a chicken.

I blanched. “That’s not exactly comforting.”

“Should be. Far quicker way ta die. Less painful as well. Ya were talkin’ ‘bout the screechin’ harpies that could rend a man’s ears inta bloody masses in just a few squawks.”

“Right.”

I closed my eyes and folded myself into a new position so my head could lean against the side. It already felt too heavy for my neck. And though the wind rushing across the skiff stole the sweat from my brow and the ever-present sway of the ocean lulled me, I could feel a fear rising up to grip me around the throat as surely as Ben’s hand might do so soon.

“Their screeching left many men aboard that ship deaf or mostly deaf. The man who told me this story said that many of them didn’t even remember what those shrieks sounded like, but he’d been belowdecks, two layers of wood and a shirt wrapped about his head between him and the noise. He said it sounded like a woman’s piercing scream, but higher, scratchier and full of fury.” I fell silent because my own voice had gone scratchy and I wanted to let the spit pool in my mouth so I had something to swallow.

Kwa-oou. Kwa-kwa-kwa-oou-chh.

I blinked at the sky as the repetitive sound came again. It wasn’t a storm bird. It didn’t have a flaming tail. Nor did it boast draping wings or a cry that could make our eardrums bleed. But it flew in the sky above our heads nevertheless.

Kwa-kwa-oou.

A gull with a gray head, white wings and a beak so orange it rivaled the sun.

Ben launched himself from the bow so quickly his shirt fell to the spot he’d vacated. He stood with feet apart, his balance impeccable as he twisted this way and that, his hand above his eyes as he searched the horizon. I scrambled to join him, but didn’t get far, too dizzy to do more than get my feet under me and clutch at the side of the skiff so I wouldn’t fall.

“There!” He pointed at a smudge of gray-brown in the distance that looked more like a cloud than a land mass. “Land ‘hoy,” he whispered.

Then, before I’d even managed to find my footing, he’d stepped across the skiff and pressed a boot against the stern thwart. He kicked with his heel twice, extending the crack, the sound awful and crackling and I envisioned the whole boat filling with water from his violence.

“What are you doing? You’ll break it!”

“Need an oar,” he said without stopping, his heel coming down twice more until the bench fell in on itself. Then he bent and worked the other side free with a couple of grunts and a burst of strength.

I staggered as the skiff dipped from his shifting weight and ended up pressing up against his bare torso, his sweat smearing across my arm as his back muscles bunched. The seagull cried out again and turned on its wing before landing at the tip of the bow. It cocked its head at us before pecking at a pale piece of shorn rope. Then, with a cry of indignation, it took flight, heading for that cloud Ben claimed was land.

The seat came free with another splintering crack and Ben’s sudden shift in weight sent the skiff rocking violently. I grabbed at him for balance, his skin hot and firm and the whole of him unconcerned at the sudden pitching of the boat, his body like an extension of the wood we stood upon.

When I’d righted myself and the skiff had gone back to its normal sway, he grinned at me. “Ready for solid ground?”

I released him and turned to watch the seagull soar on an updraft. Heading slightly more north than east. Then, finding stores of energy I didn’t know I had, I returned Ben’s grin. “Far more so than you.”

He took the stern position, sitting mostly on his knees while using that jagged short chunk of wood to keep us heading in the correct direction. The current pushed us north, but not nearly enough east, so we dug deep for hours on end, me with my hands in the water, doing what I could to get us closer to that lump of brown.

Oars would have been helpful in those excruciating hours as the sun slipped down the sky. But we’d been left with nothing but our clothes and a desperation to live. That seagull was long gone by the time the brown smudge on the horizon looked more like a growing mass of land than a low bank of fog, but I could still hear its cry echoing in my ears. More from hope than from reality.

But even with my fingers pruned and water-logged and the tip of Ben’s makeshift oar smoothed from saltwater, we carried on. Relentless as the sea. He wouldn’t let me rest, barking at me to row, to keep my fingers together and my palm flat against the waves. His voice, low and demanding, kept me pushing myself, yet it was his unceasing strokes through the long hours, the stubborn proof that this man would refuse to give up on life, that kept me moving even when my arms went numb.

A furrow appeared in Ben’s forehead and wouldn’t leave. He didn’t have to glance at the sun for me to know what worried him. There’d been little of the moon recently during the night hours and the clouds had thickened over the course of the day. Suffocating darkness would greet us when the last of the light faded. And that darkness would take all hope we had of finding that shore.

“When we get there,” said Ben, as if our arrival was inevitable, “take care. If we’re landin’ on one of the islands north of the continent then natives might find offense at our presence.”

I was breathing hard, but responded, “I thought some of them had trade deals with ports on the mainland.”

“Some, yah. Nah all.”

“I see.”

“Just do nah do anythin’ stupid.” Then he released a controlled breath through slightly pursed lips. He fell silent after and the wind picked up. It came from the southwest and helped push us along, though it would have done a fair share more had we a sail and boom to guide it. As it was, the wind was a marginal help and help was needed.

Trees came into view first. A wash of green along a sandy shoreline. Seagulls gathered to the left along a craggy rocky outcropping that twisted out of sight. They sang like the news bearers back home, constantly crying out to be heard over one another.

As the palms began to show some individuality, the sun sent a blast of orange through the clouds at our backs. The water kicked up by my hand turned bright while the bow cut through shadows at our front. And as the light slowly faded and the distance between us and that shore seemed to take forever to diminish, Ben let out a whoop and slammed his lump of wood against the interior of the skiff.

I spun, squinting as I glared at him. “What are you doing?”

He laughed, his eyes crinkling in a tired pleasure. “The tide. It’s goin’ in.”

“In,” I echoed, then I turned back to watch the land grow. I sank against the bow’s edge and nearly wept in relief, for Ben was right. The ocean tugged us closer with every crash upon the sand. We were well and truly caught, so we shared celebratory grins, then redoubled our efforts so that by the time only the frailest of light lingered to make the sky a deep violet, we were riding high on the surf.

Ben leapt from the boat first, the water splashing up to mid-thigh on him as he gripped the bow and tugged it after him against the push and pull of the waves. I followed, gasping in sudden nausea when the ground remained hard and firm, such a difference after being so long on the rocking sea. At the waterline, reality caught up with me, and though I still felt as if the land rocked under my feet, I turned and threw an arm around Ben’s shoulders with a delirious laugh. Surprisingly, he returned the favor, with a hand around my waist as if he thought I planned on pitching into the sand.

“Do nah get excited yet.”

“You say that,” I said with another breathless laugh, “but I’m just happy to be on solid ground again.” I wiped my hair away from my face, then hissed as my fingers dragged across hair too sharp for how sensitive my skin had become.

Ben grabbed my hand and turned it over, his grip firm, but his thumb gentle as he pressed against my forefinger. “Need ta dry up and find freshwater.” He glanced at the tree line where the palm fronds swung, but his gaze seemed to bore into the shadows beyond. “Nah tonigh’ though. I’ll pull out the skiff so we can sleep with somethin’ at our backs.”

I nodded as he released me, but immediately felt the loss of his strength. His warmth. I think, most of all, I worried that open land might deprive me of the company he provided. The company I hadn’t even realized I’d wanted.

Ben yanked the skiff’s bow past the surf, his footing going bad the moment he hit shifting sand. The aft end of the skiff pitched when the next wave rushed under it, sending it sideways as the water pulled back to the sea. Ben stalled the boat from rushing back into the waves, but then paused for a moment to catch his breath, leaning against the skiff with his head hanging and his chest heaving. He’d done the bulk of the work getting us here and I…

I squeezed my wet hands, feeling the ridges that had rose as I’d paddled for shore. Then I joined him. Hooked my fists over the edge of the skiff and gave all that was left in me to help him drag that boat from the water, through the shifting sand and up beyond the tide line where we both collapsed side by side, panting from exertion. He chuckled as if we’d beaten some monster already and patted my thigh as if to tell me I’d won something. Maybe his respect. I hoped so at any rate.

When I closed my eyes, the world still swayed, but the crashing of the shore and the rustling of the fronds above our heads held a soothing quality that had Ben snoring almost immediately and me sinking into a fitful sleep not far behind.


Lost Isle (The Ocean’s Aviary Book I) is on pre-order and will be published on March 23rd 2021. Paperback copies have already gone live. This is a fantasy adventure romance novel of about 130,000 words, featuring dangerous and dashing pirates, magical birds and mythical beasts of the winged sort, as well as betrayal and love and revenge!

~Emmi