Fate is a Bloody Mistress
Greek mythology and piratical legend combine in this tale, dripping in gothic atmosphere…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
Excitement was: the scent of burning oakum, black powder and white smoke, the taste of sulfur, the tang of blood in the air, as sharp as hot iron, and bodies sweet with the odor of coming death.
From the rigging, Red Nell saw it all. Felt the ship shudder as her port guns belched out their whirring loads of pig iron. First grapeshot, then chain-shot, aimed at the shrouds, then at the decks. Either way, the result was the same. A deafening boom, silence, splintering, crashing, and the echoes of carnage. And, in the heat of it all, a riot of women with laughs on their lips and cutlasses at their side.
The blind captain watched the battle unfold through her familiar’s eyes. Her chestnut cat gave her night-sight that brought clarity to the darkest of shadows, but Red Nell still had a cat’s proclivities. She was more interested in the mice scurrying across the poop deck than any human foe so, with reluctance, Enyo dismissed the spell and allowed her consciousness to retreat from its furry host.
The switch came quickly but Enyo felt little difference. Standing with bare feet planted on bare boards, feeling them buckle as the cannons—pointed skyward—fired warning shots across her enemies’ bows, Enyo was at her most feline. Mood as changeable as the ocean, body as strong as her ship, she walked with the swagger of someone born to be free.
The square-rigger was red from beam to braces. Home to a hundred women and twelve guns, The Bloody Mistress well-deserved her name. Yet it wasn’t her reputation in battle that usually brought swift surrender. It was the dark magics her captain wielded.
No one knew where Enyo hailed from. No one knew her story. If they had, they would not have slept easy. All that was known was that Enyo and The Bloody Mistress had appeared at the end of one dry summer, materializing out of the mist off Shark Atoll like one of the spectral ships of legend.
Then, or so the barflies in Mephisto Port related, the ship had not looked unusual. A medium-sized brigantine, clean and trim. No-one had recognized her, which was strange in a community where sailors knew ships so well that a new name and new paintjob could never disguise a vessel taken as bounty or turned privateer.
It was after a winter spent harrying merchants along the storm-coasts that the rumors about The Bloody Mistress really began. Its captain—saffron-robed, wearing a sash across her eyes—never came ashore. Her crew were less secretive but could tell those who asked little about The Mistress beyond one fact. After their first raid, the captain had ordered all captives taken to the f’ward hold. Seventy-five men had gone into that pitched maw. In the morning the crew awoke to find them all gone and the ship painted a color that anyone who had ever been in battle would have recognized as the exact hue of blood—freshly spilled. After every battle, a handful of prisoners would be consigned to the hold. None were ever seen again and the ship, at sea for ten months straight, had never needed so much as a new nail or a lick of paint.
The women came from all walks of life and, while none of them could remember exactly when they had signed aboard The Bloody Mistress, they all agreed the plunder was good, and the living easy. Their captain never took a share of the booty, though in a moment of drunken confession, Dusty Sue claimed to know that she was searching for something. Following some invisible thread to some unknown destination.
“But,” the wharf rats would ask, “why would you follow a blind captain? How does she keep order? Direct you in battle?” No one could say, but none had ever dared cross her.
“She’s a witch, and that’s a fact,” the ship’s carpenter opinioned over a tankard of Dead Man’s Ale. “I seen her one night up in crow’s nest, wreathed in St. Elmo’s fire, calling out to those demons of hers an’ them rumblin’ back their replies. I tell you straight, all of us who’ve stood by while men were thrown into that hell pit—we ride with the devil now.”
No one paid much heed to Crazy Mary’s drunken whispers. A pirate’s reputation was built on fear and this was all grist for the rumor-mill.
Had anyone thought to listen to Old Tom, though, they might have felt differently. Tom had been a man of letters and learning before his debaucheries had caught up with him. If you’d stood him a drink or three he might have told you about the Graeae, the Moira, the Norns, and the Laima—blind witches, who’d been haunting mankind for as long as there were people to tell of it. He might have even remembered an eyeless, saffron-robed sea captain, who’d pillaged the seas of the Aegeon some 50 years ago. He might have recalled how people spoke, then, of a ship, red from bow-spit to prow, with an evil reputation. A ship that never gave quarter, crewed by women with no pasts. A ship captained by a sorcerer and fueled by diabolical sacrifices. But Tom was a fool, brain softened by the pox, and no one cared what he said anymore.
As her crew enjoyed the varied attractions that Port Mephisto had to offer, Enyo stood at the bow of The Bloody Mistress. So still that you might have taken her for the ship’s figurehead. Red Nell—never far away—sat curled at her feet licking the deck with a look of profound pleasure.
The night was warm but the air smelled of ice. Another week and the Devil’s Wilds—storms from the frozen North—would be here, and only the mad would even think of putting out to sea. No matter. If the Wilds truly were the devils’, then it was none that Enyo had ever had dealings with— and she’d conned a score or more over the centuries.
For a moment, the thought brought a smile to her wind-weathered face. It quickly switched to a scowl as another gust set Red Nell howling and spitting. There, riding the currents, was the scent of something old, cunning, and disturbingly familiar. “By the dogs!” Enyo spat, her whole body snapping to attention. An imperious wave of her fingers ignited the signal lantern and, spinning on her heels, she marched towards the poop deck with thunder in every step.
Ashore, the crew of The Bloody Mistress stopped in their tracks. Arguments were abandoned, lovers jilted, fights forsaken. Few, if any, could see the signal fire but, as one, they turned, blank-eyed, and headed towards their crimson-hued berth with cursing creditors hanging on their coat-sleeves.
Sixteen guns, with topgallant sails and royals, The Bloody Mistress was rigged for battle and speed but she still needed a long-boat to tow her through the reefs and shallows that made Mephisto such a haven against dangerous waters.
The crew rowed in silence until they felt the tell-tale up-roll of their boat hitting open the water when they knew, instinctively, that they could stow their oars and return to less arduous duties onboard The Mistress.
There, up top, morning arrived as long, burning fingers of light creeping their way across deck. For a moment the bloodied vessel seemed to shimmer as though undecided whether she was part of the world of shadows, or the world of light. Then, finally, the sun broke the horizon and both ship and crew greeted the new dawn with audible groans, as the deck warmed and the hangovers kicked in.
Enyo, in her usual place on the poop deck, turned her blind eyes towards the rising sun with a look of impatience. The Akson pilot, Dusty Sue, followed her lead, and sure enough there it was— two points to starboard—a sail flickering on the horizon as though conjured there by the Great Deceiver Himself.
Enyo gave a toothy smile. “Straight at her Sailing Mistress and be ready to come alongside—hard—on my command. Gunners, I want carcass shot and langrage readied. Crew, on your bellies and wait for the word before you put so much as a hair above that gun deck.”
Lying with her nose to the boards, guts tight with anticipation, it was Cutpurse Kate who saw it first. A freakish miasma, pressing its way between the caulking. For a moment she panicked, thinking the ship was afire. Scorching skin and crackling timbers were the one constant theme of her nightmares and she blanched, cried out, and made to run for the sand-buckets. A strong hand on her shoulder—Enyo’s— brought her to a trembling halt.
The miasma was cold, and where it touched flesh, women shuddered. Women who’d laughed in the face of death more times than they could remember, cried out in terror. Some tried to rise, to throw themselves over the rail, flailing hands batting away invisible horrors. Others lay, pale and still as corpses, eyes filmed, staring upwards at their own private torments.
At the helm, Dusty Sue chewed her lip to a bloody pulp, knuckles cracking, her body jerking like a woman on a gibbet, as she fought the urge to swing the wheel around and run the ship back to port.
Seemingly unaffected Enyo wove a pathway through the prone bodies. “Take no heed, my lovelies,” she said quietly, “tricks is all. Just tricks.”
The tendrils of sickly green mist continued to crawl their way across deck, leaving a choir of whimpers and choked prayers in its path. But slowly, Enyo’s whispered assurances—and maybe something else—did its work. One by one, the women quietened, clenched their teeth, grasped their cutlasses, and readied themselves for battle.
Through it all, The Bloody Mistress plowed on, canvas straining, waves drenching the bodies hunkered on deck with stinging spray. Red Nell, tail lashing back and forth, watched it all and, through her cat’s cold eyes, Enyo saw the enemy ship approach. It still shimmered like some sea-born mirage, but a target was a target.
At Enyo’s lusty cry, Dusty Sue threw the wheel around. The Bloody Mistress responded with supernatural speed. Another cry: “Let her have it, you lubbers!” and the first of the incendiaries belched from the cannon mouths. Some fizzled and vanished as soon as they hit the strangely shimmering air, but others found their mark and the enemy vessel was soon aglow with dozens of tiny flames.
The Mistress bucked, fell down into the swirling waters, then back up again. The gunners reloaded, and canisters of nails, bolts, and rusted metal exploded over the deck of the mirage-ship. The resulting damage—torn canvas and splintering wood—appeared satisfyingly real.
Shot after shot hit its mark yet still there was no reply from the enemy.
“Archers! Into the shrouds!”
The women, many still in the grip of the mist’s fearful terrors, were sluggish and clumsy. Tripping, fumbling, and cursing, they clambered aloft, growing brash as they finally put distance between themselves and the cloying mist. At the mainsail’s boom, the party of red tunicked archers—almost invisible against the sails—paused and down came the cry: “Naught on deck!”
The ships were so close that Red Nell could have easily leaped from one to the other but the miasma and the ship’s shimmering outline, gave Enyo pause. She held her cat close, letting their minds mingle, feeling its little body vibrate with the thrill of the chase.
Excitement was: canvas flapping, ropes straining against cleats, bilges sloshing, boards creaking, gulls cackling overhead. The waves were calm now, seeming to almost caress the two ships as they lay side-by-side. Then—there! A sail, smoldering from the Mistresses’ incendiaries, caught fire and flared for a moment, illuminating the enemy vessel with a lurid glow.
The flare, seen through the filter of Red Nell’s cool detachment brought Enyo to a decision. “Rake the deck!” she called up to the archers. “Grapples at the ready. Sue”—she nodded towards the Sailing Mistress—“once we’re across, tie off the wheel and begin the search. Boarding party! Follow me, my lovelies!”
With bronzed skin, hair as silver as the stars, and Red Nell wrapped around her shoulder, Enyo made a striking spectacle. She stood poised by the rails, shining blade in one hand, grappling rope in the other. A clang as metal hit oak, and she was off: tightroping the distance between the two ships with an acrobat’s grace.
Her crew, still shaken, still haunted by the visions that the weird mist had conjured, were less sure-footed but no less bold. They jumped, swung, and clambered across the divide, landing with thuds on the dank and silent ship.
The archers had the truth of it. The deck was empty. Arrows lay buried deep in the fractured planks. Sails hung in shreds like peeling, over-sunned skin. Small flames flickered, were extinguished by invisible hands, only to spark again as though fire was too much to be contained by whatever magics fueled this unnatural craft.
The crew shuffled nervously, fingering their blades as the enemy ship rolled and bobbed on the waves like an oversized coffin. The image was so overwhelming that even the sight of the open cargo hatch brought no cheer. Instead of rich booty, the women envisioned a hold crammed to the rim with plague-bloated bodies, riddled and writhing with corruption.
“Enough of this!” Enyo spoke as though to herself, addressing the unmanned wheel, with a tone laced with dangerous intent.
For a moment, nothing. Then, as suddenly as they had begun the uncanny visions vanished, and like a dancer stepping from behind a veil, a figure appeared.
“Sister,” Enyo intoned before correcting herself. “Sisters. Come now, Pemph, don’t be shy. Say hello why don’t you?”
A second figure appeared beside the first. But while the first was impossibly old, bent double with age, the second was a fresh-faced maiden—barely more than a child.
“You found it then?”
“We have not,” spat the crone.
“It still lies wherever the Mycenaean left it,” the maiden said petulantly.
“Oh, sisters! You always were such terrible liars. Did I not hear it call to me? As it has always called to those of our kind. Give it up now and my children will treat you kindly…”
Shaken but undaunted, Cutpurse Kate huzzahed, pulling a wicked kris blade from her boot. “Aye, Captain!” she said, lustily. “Come! Let your children play. We’ve newly-sharpened blades to be tested!”
Red Nell, sensing trouble, purred with feline glee.
Like the blind captain, the crone and the maiden both wore sashes across their eyes. Nevertheless it seemed to the onlookers that they still scanned the decks, as they weighed their reply.
“It is ours. You will not take it!” the crone whimpered, and, with that, the ship lurched. Like a bucking mule, it arched its oaken back and launched itself from the water, landing with a whoosh of air and a crack of its over-strained ribs.
Enyo’s crew went down but the waves off Savage Point were wilder and less forgiving. They were used to such tumults and sprang to their feet faster than the witches had anticipated.
The sisters spat, stamped, and began to cast again. Tentatively at first, then feeling no resistance from Enyo, with increasing confidence. For a moment, the ship shimmered then, slowly, feet, then ankles, then knees, began to sink into the now transparent deck.
The crew, drowning in the timber quicksand, flailed, panicked, and bedlam reigned. Some tried to swim through the tarred oak. Others lay still, spreading out their weight to slow their descent. Others reached for their sisters-in-arms, tugging this way and that to extract themselves from the quagmire. And, there, above all the cries and curses, one sound echoed across the ship: Crazy Mary’s prayer beads, clack-clack-clacking out a desperate petition to the gods.
Unperturbed, Enyo shrugged. “Psh! That old trick!” she said, making intricate movements with her long fingers. “And so easily remedied.” For a moment nothing, then time itself seemed to rewind and the crew found themselves back on solid deck, with only fast purpling bruises and reeling senses to prove that anything had happened at all.
It was the crone who spoke first: “You’ve grown powerful, Sister.”
“No,” Enyo replied sadly. “You have grown weak. Come now. It would be no great feat to send you and this craft into the depths. What’s it to be?”
“Sister, have mercy!” the maiden cried. “It has taken us a dozen lifetimes to find. An eternity. Do not take it from us now.”
“Yes!” echoed the crone in a paroxysm of desperation, “have mercy. We need it! We cannot live without it. Let it be ours for just a little longer.”
Enyo did not see the older sister reach for the knife, but Red Nell did and she responded with a cat’s efficiency. A flash of claws, a blur of fur, and the bronze parazonium clattered to the deck.
The crew were already advancing on the trio and Enyo knew that should she be harmed, they would demand blood as surely The Mistress did. It was time to finish what she had begun.
She bent to pick up the small, Spartan dagger. For a moment she paused, feeling the sharp point of the triangular blade beneath her thumb. She saw herself lift it to her sister’s neck, saw the blade taste blood, saw an end to the game once and for all. With a grunt, she shook off the vision, pushed the blade into her belt and offered her sister a kerchief for her gashed hand.
Neither the crone nor the maiden spoke and, with Enyo’s magics now holding them fast, they could only watch as she directed the crew to strip the ship bare. For a while the two sisters hoped that it would not be found. They had hidden it well, beneath wood and behind wards, but alas! They felt the truth long before Dusty Sue appeared on deck holding the little bag triumphantly in her grizzled hand.
Enyo had not the heart to listen to her sisters beg and wail. Nor could she do what logic dictated and end their lives as surely as they would have ended hers. So, she carried her trophy away, casting them and their ship to the furthest ends of the earth, with dreams of long ago to keep them company.
Finally, as the crew settled to divide the booty, she withdrew to the bow, removed her blindfold and placed the glass bauble into her eye socket. For one breathtaking, dizzying moment she looked out at the world with her single eye and saw: the past, the future, pathways leading to a myriad of possibilities, men and gods overthrown, herself possessed of inviable power, seated on a golden throne. She saw her sisters, venomous and plotting, drawn to the eye with an unquenchable longing. A longing that passed all reason. That poisoned and polluted everything it touched. A longing that she, too, felt as the eye began to whisper its promises and show her its beautiful, terrible visions. It would, she knew, give her whatever she wanted, and take whatever it wanted in return.
Through the eye, Enyo saw herself and her sisters play this game out time and time again, as generations passed, and the earth grew old and tired. She saw herself, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always—and forever— searching for the eye. The one eye that had escaped into the world on that fateful day when Perseus had come to demand answers to riddles. The eye that had driven her sisters mad with the loss of it. The eye that had broken their triumvirate and forced her to forge blood-soaked deals against its greater evil.
She knew that the eye could never be allowed to fall into the hands of men. Nor could it be destroyed. But it would allow itself to be mislaid, at least for a short while.
With a sigh, Enyo plucked out the gaudy bauble, whispered words into the ether, and cast the eye aloft. It flickered for a while, then spun out of space and time to somewhere and somewhen else.
Beautiful, or said to be so in the early years of man, Enyo, Deino, and Pemph, were sisters three. There was magic in that number and in the speaking of their names. But no one spoke their names now. No one knew their story save Enyo and she spoke only to demons, her crew, and Red Nell.
Paula Hammond is a professional writer based in London, England. Recent fiction includes “A-Wilding She Will Go” (Air & Nothingness Press), “Someone Special” (The NoSleep Podcast), and “All Your Bases, Yada-Yada” (Third Flatiron), which was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award. She writes too much and sleeps too little.