A man beside Rorie nudged her, startling her. “Spyglass?” he asked, offering her a small, collapsible telescope.
“Aye,” she said, “and thank you.” She extended the spyglass and held the narrow end to her eye. Through the lens, the harbor snapped into enlarged focus.
There sat the Dread Freight, black and bloated, gently bobbing in its dock like a spider preparing to pounce. The bailiffs has been busy inside the cordoned area, as well, having set up a barricade to keep people well back from the deadly ship.
They needn’t have bothered. While plenty of townspeople and dock workers roamed the area, no one went near the Dread Freight.
She pulled the telescope away from her eye, rubbed away a bit of sleepy-sand, and looked through the scope again.
“You see them?” the man muttered. “The crew?”
Rorie nodded, the view rising and falling as she did, but not so much that she couldn’t see the…crew…roaming the decks of the black ship. Some had even come ashore and stood at attention in the empty, sawhorse-delineated area around the gangplank.
They were bizarre figures clad in black cloaks, jerking as they moved as though attempting to walk like humans after having studied a few instructional drawings. As their cloaks swirled in the morning salt-breeze, Rorie could see the sunlight glinting off silver studs on black leather armor that covered them from neck to toes.
But that wasn’t the strangest of their coverings: each of the Dread Freight’s crew wore a mask, bone-white and featureless save for a single large mark on the lower half, in the shape of a downturned horseshoe.
Rorie knew that symbol. It was letter from a dead alphabet, courtesy of an even more extinct culture, thousands of years gone. An…’omega,’ wasn’t it? Some people still used it to signify endings or ultimate examples of things. It had persisted, along with a few other marks of its kind, all these millennia.
From her point of view, though, it didn’t look like a letter, archaic or otherwise. It looked like a scowl, a vicious frown.
And before she could stop it, there it was in her head: the name ‘Frowners,’ forever associated with the peculiar figures.
A second later, it happened: a man hurdled one of the sawhorses and ran straight for the Dread Freight. He waved his arms over his head as he sprinted toward the black craft. Bailiffs reached over the barricade, grasping futilely, but none chased after him.
As one, a group of a half-dozen Frowners swiveled to face the man.
He stopped short, gesturing angrily as the Frowners regarded him without moving.
The man dropped his arms with exasperation and continued to shout at the Frowners.
And one of them finally moved.
As Rorie watched, immobilized, the Frowner reached into its robe and withdrew a pair of gleaming silver daggers, one for each hand.
The man took a step back. The armed Frowner didn’t follow, but held its weapons over its head and began to tap their tips together in a rapid rhythm. Rorie couldn’t hear, but could imagine the sound of silver against silver, ting-ting-ting-ting.
Without prelude, the man dropped to his knees and began to vomit, clutching at his stomach. The Frowner, seeing this, put its daggers away. One by one, the robed figures turned their attention back to what they had been doing.
“Y’mind if I get that back, Miz?” asked the man on the roof as the vomiting man dragged himself upright and staggered back to the barricade, where the bailiffs gently helped him over. “Only we’re taking turns with it, and all.”
“One more moment, sorry,” Rorie said. A jolt of practicality shot through her. She managed to tear her attention away from the Dread Freight and swept her eye along the other docked ships, reading the names on their prows to see if some – any – of her expected delivery vessels were here.
Several were, and the others had to be those still out sat sea, tacking in broad circles or sitting with dropped sails, waiting their turn.
With a groan, she collapsed the spyglass and returned it to the man with further thanks. Rorie broke away from the crowd and trudged back to the ladder, descending it to find Nella and the bicycle waiting.
“You saw?” Nella asked, leaning the bike toward Rorie, who took the handlebars. The two of them walked out of the alleyway onto an empty main road, Rorie now having full understanding of why Chief Quay had been so sparsely-populated this morning.
“Aye,” she said. “Word’s leaking out, isn’t it? It must be.”
“Drip by drop,” Nella said, nodding. She cast a glance downslope to one of the blocked-off streets, and the crowds milling there. “There’ll be a panic, Miz Quarry. Soon enough, and no waiting when it happens.”
Rorie thought of the panic of three years ago, and how she had gone just as mad as everyone else clogging the harbor as the tangled wreckage made its last slip beneath the waves. She remembered losing a shoe as she made her crazed dash from their house, after Liszt had run to tell Rorie, and how Rorie’s heel had throbbed for days afterwards from pounding on the cobblestones.
“I wonder if you might say something,” Nella said, and Rorie, coming out of her reverie, didn’t understand.
“Say…to who? Say something?”
“Well, I mean to say…you’re a community leader, Miz Quarry. People listen to you. You go down there and say something to calm the crowd, that is.”
“I wouldn’t have the first inkling,” Rorie said, and turned to face Nella. “Community leader? Who’s saying that?”
Nella shrugged, her thick shoulders from a lifetime of wrangling errant cows flexing under her denim shirt. “I just thought…how many people do you employ? How much money do you bring into Chief Quay? Miz Quarry, if you’re not a community leader – if people don’t listen to you, then who do they listen to?”
“If people aren’t listening to the bailiffs…Nella, for heaven’s sake, they would trample me.”
Nella held her gaze a moment longer, then looked away and shook her head. “I understand. I should…” She wouldn’t look at Rorie again. “I’ve got a boat full of calves down there. I really should…” Nella walked away without looking back. “Luck to you, Miz Quarry.”
“And to you, Miz Fagen,” Rorie said, but Nella was already out of earshot.
Rorie walked the bicycle up the hill, feeling wrung out and exhausted. She should have ridden, but the dealings down at the docks had left a bee-buzz behind her eyes and an ache in her stomach.
She had one thing in mind: opening the shop, although she had no idea why she wanted to.
“Community leader,” she mumbled to herself as she trudged along. What a ludicrous idea. She ran a business, she spoke to people in town regularly, she put food on the tables of her employees…isn’t that what any business owner did? Why would anyone think she was some sort of paragon?
She certainly didn’t do any of the things you might attribute to a leader. She didn’t participate in the town council or any of its unending committees.
Rorie rolled her eyes. Committees for the beautification of Chief Quay. Committees to organize festivals and holiday celebrations, two dozen for Christmas alone. Committees for this, that, and every imaginable, meddling in-between. The very concept of it wore her out.
And the very concept that she was some sort of master orator, who could hold a crowd in her sway and keep them from fearing for their lives when a ship of death perched at the shore, burning silently like a fuse ready to detonate a firework of bottomless horrors. Rorie laughed; it was the only reasonable response.
She crested the hill, the shop in view, and Rorie wondered again why she wanted to open up on this demented morning.
Did some part of her actually fall for the ‘leader’ nonsense? Was she opening up to establish some sense of normalcy, not just for herself but for the rest of Chief Quay?
She paused, leaned over the handlebars, and sighed. Well…what was so wrong about that, if that was her motive? Should she run back to the docks (losing a shoe as she did, of course), screaming and rending her clothes. ‘We’re all going to die!’ Should she scream that, and use her alleged mighty control over the citizens to whip them into a state of pure terror instead?
Rorie straightened up. Panic, or going home and hiding under the bedspread, or…setting an example?
She hopped on the bike and pedaled the last few dozen yards to the shop. She leaned the bicycle against the wooden hitching post outside and pulled her key from her pants pocket.
And noticed, as she turned it in the lock, that there was no give of shifting tumblers.
As though the door had already been unlocked.
Rorie stood there, fingers on key, key in lock, door still closed, and couldn’t believe it. Had someone actually taken advantage of the situation at the harbor to try and burgle her shop?
She moved her hand to the doorknob and stopped, anger bubbling in her heart. After all this hemming and hawing about putting on a show of resolve and positivity for the people of Chief Quay, and one of the bastards had broken into her place of business? Her home?
Community leader? Rorie clenched her jaw. If someone was in her shop without permission, she’d lead them, for certain. She’d lead them by the nose to the nearest bailiff’s station.
With a vicious twist, she turned the knob, yanked open the door, and stormed into the spice shop.
At the far wall, a Frowner stood, examining a small jar of seeds. Its black robes hung slack to the floor.
And as Rorie watched it, the figure turned to face her.
Today’s Words: 1655
Total Words: 4342
Notes: Feeling sick still, but not awfully so. It’s either the worst allergies, or mildest cold, I’ve ever had…
I’m attempting to write a Christmas-themed fantasy novel in December! Check it out from the beginning here, and come back for new chapters every day…ish!