“I’ve done it. I’ve bloody done it. What it’ll cost me, I don’t yet know. I’m out, but I can hear them shouting. They’re still searching. Got the rats out for me. And the moles.”
April 26th - 1867
What was remarkable about the human stomach, is that, although small, when given the chance to vomit continuously, it can conveniently offer a seemingly endless supply of bile with which to facilitate the act. And so it was that Merion discovered this fact of biology, as he heaved his guts out over the railing for the hundredth time that day.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that the sailors would have stopped laughing after the first day, or the second. Perhaps even the fourth. But no. It was the sixth day aboard the Tamarassie, and the sailors still found his puking the very pinnacle of hilarity.
Perhaps it was because he ruined so many of his good clothes.
Merion winced as he felt the acid-burn on the back of his throat. His hands were slimy and his chin wet. Even without looking down, he could tell his rather expensive coat was already soiled. He closed his eyes and pushed himself to try and enjoy the gentle swaying and pitching and rolling…
More laughter erupted from the bow as Merion introduced his innards to the sea once more.
When he had finally finished, he stared up at the horizon, as Rhin had suggested. It hadn’t helped yet, but there was always hope.
The Iron Ocean was a desolate place. A desert in its own right, but one of rolling granite-coloured waves, of whirling foam and drifting, sapphire-blue ice. The day was cold and grey, as it had been since they left Port’s Mouth. Cold and bitter, so the sea spray froze in the blustery air, rising up to sting Merion’s cheeks and knuckles as he hung over the rusted railing of the Tamarassie.
Barely more than a converted tramp steamer, the ship was a bucket of rust and poorly-painted metalwork. A pile of iron and varnished wood, she sat low in the ever-heaving waters of the corpse-cold ocean. The Tamarassie was fat with cargo and passengers seeking fortune on the new continent. She waddled, so much as steamed, towards the city of Boston, far, far in the hazy, cloud-smeared distance. From where he stood, Merion could hear the slapping and deep resonant churning of the ship’s twin paddles, sticking out of the ship’s ribs like the fat wheels of a cart and buried to their necks in the water. A jagged-topped funnel sat squat behind the bridge, and the sickly soot-smell of the thick pillar of smoke it belched into the cold air was not helping Merion’s stomach one bit.
It seemed his father had left little money for a luxurious voyage in his final will and testament. Perhaps Witchazel had cut a larger than normal fee. In any case, the Tamarassie was a far cry from the ocean liners Merion had seen in the penny dreadfuls, or sitting proudly against the murk of the Thames shipyards.
Merion wiped himself as best he could and tottered across the metal and wood deck toward the door he had left open. He could still hear the tittering mirth of the sailors, who seemingly had spent the whole voyage lounging about on deck. Merion ignored them, and went below to his all-too modest cabin.
Rhin was enjoying a biscuit in his usual spot: atop the edge of Merion’s largest trunk, where it was piled in the corner with the others. He had shed his armour, but still wore his little knife at his hip, no more than an inch-long shard of black Fae steel. To the innocent bystander, the faerie’s blade might have seemed insignificant, a pinprick. But the Fae had learned long ago the arteries, the veins, the nerves, the… tender areas of men, when humans had still been young and wild. Before their gunpowder and their machinery.
In Rhin’s hands the biscuit was a dinner plate, but he was making a considerable dent in the side. Rhin had a sweet tooth. Well, more like a sweet fang. Sugar to him was like rum to a sailor. His eyes half-closed as he chewed and his crystalline wings fluttered.
There was a bang and a thud on the wall outside the cabin, and Rhin fell back into the trunk with a soft thud. As the metal lock started to rattle, Rhin was already half buried in a dark blue shirt, skin and armour shimmering as it became translucent. Faerie skin is a marvellous thing. Its magic delights in tricking the eye, adapting to the colours and light. It is one of the oldest spells of the faeries, and their most coveted. Within moments, he was more shirt than faerie, and his black knife spared not a glint.
‘It’s me,’ said a hoarse voice, thick with phlegm and retching.
There was a quick buzzing, and Rhin hopped up onto the lip of the trunk. ‘So it is. Feeling better?’
‘Not in the slightest. How long?’
‘One thousand two-hundred and fifty-six miles to Boston. No, wait. Fifty-five. Four days maybe.’
This particular faerie-trick never failed to boggle Merion’s mind. Rhin could tell you the distance between any two points on the map, quick as a flash. Rhin had tried to explain it to Merion almost a dozen times, but the boy could never understand it. All Merion knew was that it actually wasn’t magic, as he had originally guessed, but something to do with magnets and poles. An inner compass, so the faerie said.
‘I’m going to sleep,’ Merion sighed, dropping down into the tiny cot that was fighting for space with his luggage. A broom cupboard would have offered more volume.
‘Again?’ Rhin asked, rolling his eyes.
‘There’s nothing else to do on this cursed boat.
The faerie couldn’t argue with that, and he shrugged as Merion covered his face with the dubiously stained blanket that had come with the cot.
Something sharp began to slice through Merion’s slumbers, through his mangled dreams, shred by shred. He could hear a distant clanging; the muted notes swirling around his head. Slowly but surely, he was dragged from the sucking depths of sleep.
The first thing he saw was Rhin waving to him from the trunk. The biscuit was nowhere to be seen. ‘Rise and shine, lordling.’
‘What is that infernal racket?’ Merion mumbled, wiping the drool from his face.
Rhin pointed at the wooden ceiling as if the answer was written amongst the flakes of peeling varnish. ‘Ship’s bells. Better go and have a look.’
The prospect of going back on deck was about as alluring as a sausage from a leper’s pocket. Merion sighed, something he was quickly making a habit of.
‘Who knows, it could be important?’ Rhin coaxed him.
Merion frowned. ‘If you’re so bored, then why don’t you go and have a look?’
Rhin thought for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘Fine by me.’
Merion sat upright and immediately regretted it. He clamped his mouth shut, expecting to be sick, but nothing came. The nap had done him well. ‘No. You can’t go out there alone. The ship is stuffed to bursting with sailors and passengers. You’ll get seen, or tripped over, or…’
Rhin smiled, his sharp white teeth a gleaming contrast to his mottled grey skin. Merion would never have told him, but the colour kept reminding him of his father’s pallid body, lying on the sterile white tiles of the surgeon’s table. The boy shook his head, pushing that thought into the dark recesses of his mind. ‘Then come with me,’ said the faerie.
‘I believe you mean you should come with me,’ Merion corrected his friend. ‘Let’s use the bag.’
One of Tonmerion Harlequin Hark’s most prized possessions was, to the untrained eye, a simple rucksack. A relic of his father’s days spent exploring the frozen mountains of Indus, Merion had found it in Harker Sheer the summer before last, lodged behind a bookshelf in his father’s study. It was made from a rough green material, functional to the core, full of pockets and holes and grit, and it was immediately and permanently affixed to Merion’s shoulders. He would wear it to dinner. He would wear it to bed. His father begrudgingly allowed him to keep it, just as long as it was put to good use, and kept safe. Merion had done just that.
He had turned it into the perfect receptacle for smuggling a faerie in.
A crowd of passengers filled the deck: a sea of people all wrapped up in coats and scarves and blankets. They muttered to one another in hushed tones, staring at the man on the Tamarassie’s bridge, hitting the bell with a hammer every handful of seconds. A fog had fallen on the ocean. The churning of the paddles were muffled and echoed eerily about the ship. Every now and again, a lump of ice would bang loudly against the hull, and cause all the passengers to flinch.
‘What’s going on?’ Merion asked of a woman standing nearby. She was a silver-haired lady in her twilight years, standing bolt upright and proud as though a steel rod had been sewn into her coat. When she turned to face him, Merion could see the glint in her wrinkled eye, a certain spark of life. She smiled with two rows of very straight and very perfect teeth. A single and lonely scar marred her upper lip, leading from the creased corner of her mouth to her left nostril, weaving a fine, pink path.
‘Mist, young’un. And an ice field,’ she whispered, in a thick accent Merion had never heard before. He guessed it to be from somewhere deep in America, and he guessed right, though he did not know it. He had never been called “young’un” before, and he couldn’t yet decide what to make of it.
‘Are we in danger?’ he asked politely.
‘Most likely!’ she grinned, and rubbed her hands together eagerly.
Suffice it to say Merion did not share the old woman’s enthusiasm. He heard Rhin whispering from the rucksack. ‘Sounds like this old bag’s got a screw loose.’
‘Shh,’ Merion hushed him.
‘What’s that?’ asked the woman, leaning close.
‘Er… nothing.’ Merion coughed. ‘Thought I’d heard something.’ Even though Merion had lied, at that moment a shout rang out from the bow; a sailor’s voice craggy with years of cheap tobacco and even cheaper wine.
‘Berg on the port side! To starboard lads, to starboard!’
Merion felt a shudder as the ship’s innards clanked and clattered. He could imagine rusty cogs whirring and old cables shimmying from side to side, a strange dance of elderly machinery. He craned his head to look toward the bow. The paddle of the left-hand side, or the starboard as the sailors stubbornly called it, began to stutter and slow, while the paddle on the right-hand side, the port side, thrashed the water viciously with its flat iron teeth. Slowly, he felt the Tamarassie turn. Merion, his head full of stories and headlines concerning the ill-fated matrimony between ships and ice on the high seas, half-wondered if he was about to meet his watery grave.
The boy was pondering this right up to the moment when a loud gasp fluttered across the deck; cold breath drawn sharply into a hundred or so mouths. The passengers began to move then, some to the railing, others shying away, hurrying to cover the eyes of the children and some of the more fragile women. The crowd split right down the middle, and Merion found himself sliding inexorably to the railing with the braver half, gaze transfixed by the ethereal mass drifting out of the fog.
Merion found himself staring goggle-eyed at the bloody crown that graced the peak of the floating mountain of jagged ice.
‘Rhin…’ he breathed, ’are my eyes broken?’
‘No more than mine, if that’s the case,’ Rhin hissed in reply. ‘By the Roots…’ he said, and then swore in his own tongue.
The old woman was still nearby. She broke off from staring so she could seize the young Hark by the shoulder and drag him closer to the railing, where the arms and shoulders and swaddled bodies would not impair his grisly view.
‘There, young’un! Take it all in. you don’t see this every day. No sir!’
Merion didn’t even know what this was. Only that it was making him feel sick again. The woman talked in his ear as he took in every tiny, grisly detail.
‘Ever been to the deep ice, lad? Me neither, though I heard tales aplenty. Endless ice, they say. Far as the eye can barely understand. Not dead though, not at all. Full of bears and yak and foxes. People too. Nomads from the mountains. They say a nomad is the only thing in this world that ice can’t freeze in one place. And they’re vicious folk, as you can see, lad. More animal than man,’ the woman waved her arm at the top of the iceberg as it drifted slowly past the ship, as if her jaw had become tired flapping, and her body needed something else to flap while it rested. A moment filled with curious whispers and the slapping of the paddles passed. Merion craned his neck and took it all in.
Atop the towering shard of dirty white ice there sat a crown of jagged wire and slumped bodies. Half frozen to the ice at their backs, half burnt by the endless, tormenting northern sun, six men stood with their hands bound and their legs slashed at the calves. Merion held a hand to his mouth as he thought of how much blood must have pumped, when the men were sentenced to their exile. How they must have screamed. They were far from screaming now. What hadn’t been picked at by the gulls and petrels now lay yawning at the murky air around them, heads back and empty-eyed, blissfuly sailing the seas.
‘What did these men do?’ Merion asked in a hollow voice, whilst trying to hold back the crashing wave of nausea surging up his throat.
‘Who can tell. They don’t look nomad, not in the slightest. Soldiers, by the look of their black fingers. Powder will do that to you, it will, should you play with it long enough. White folks from the places where the wild pines meet the ice and stop dead. Hunting folk. Must have crossed paths with the nomads, then crossed swords. That’s what you get when you go wanderin’ into nomad territory. Punished. Fools.’ she lectured, almost spitting the last word. But then, in a silent moment of respect, she held her hand to her chest and watched them drift on by, just until they disappeared back into the fog.
Merion shuddered, as if the ghosts of the dead men had tickled his spines. ‘I, er, thank you,’ was all he could think of to say.
‘Welcome, young’un,’ she nodded, and then stuffed her hands into a pair of deep, fur-lined pockets. ‘So where you headed?’
’Probably back to my cabin…’
The woman laughed then, a harsh cackle, and clapped him heartily on the shoulder. Merion’s jolted stomach performed a somersault, and he felt that wave rising again… ‘I meant in the motherland, son. The big wide open. The Endless Land.’
Merion scratched his head. ‘Wyoming, I believe.’
The woman threw him an odd expression, the bottom half of her face pressing into her neck as her eyes and her ears lifted. A high-pitched hum rose and fell in her throat. ‘Been there before, have you?’ she asked.
‘Seems an odd choice, is all, for a young willow like you.’
Merion found himself trying to stand wider, thicker somehow. He failed. ‘Trust me, madam. There was no choice in the matter.’
‘Don’t know many folk from Wyoming. Don’t know many heading there neither, ‘cept for workers.’
‘Should I be worried?’
‘I’d be worried about her instead. She’s mad as a bucket of smashed crabs,’ Rhin hissed, his voice a skinny whisper on the icy wind.
‘Gods, no, young’un. I don’t suppose you shouldn’t,’ she shook her head vehemently, but that last sentence stuck like a fishbone in Merion’s gullet. Suppose. He hoped it was just the old woman’s strange drawl, or her astoundingly appalling grammar, that made him start to sweat, even in the cold.
‘Well,’ the woman said, and clapped her hands. ‘Best be back to my supper. Good luck to you, son. Fare well.’
‘Madam.’ Merion sketched a shallow bow. He abruptly felt a little foolish. Bowing, there on a rusty deck in the middle of the wide Iron Ocean. Well, he may not be in London any more, but he was London-born, a son of a lord, and that meant that it wasn’t just blood flowing through his veins, but manners as well. Stout, Empire-grown manners.
If you’re going to get stabbed, then get stabbed by a gentleman. At least then you get an apology along with his cold length of steel. Merion had heard that whilst hiding under his father’s desk during one of his long and stuffy meetings. The young Hark had been unearthed and soundly captured shortly after, unable to stifle a sneeze. His father had beaten him in the garden. Not enough to bruise, but just enough to make him think twice the next time.
‘You’re incorrigible, you blaggard,’ Merion snapped at his rucksack, once he was good and alone.
‘That one’s definitely missing a few tiles from the roof,’ Rhin sniggered.
Merion rolled his eyes. ‘Let’s just go inside before any more nightmares swim past.’
‘Right you are.’
As they made their way back to the main stairs, and back to their tiny cabin, Merion scratched his head and asked, ‘How many miles, Rhin?’
The faerie didn’t even have to count. ‘One-thousand, one-hundred, and ninety-four.’
‘What was that particularly colourful word you used that time? When you decided to “spar” with Lord Hafferford’s spaniel?’
‘That’s the one.’