Life of Spice: Day Three

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!


Life of Spice: Day Two


Rorie took her bicycle down the hill to the warehouse. The two-wheeled contraption was a relatively new invention, but the company had a profitable year and, after paying the staff their bonuses, she’d wanted to treat herself. It had taken some getting used to – the balance, the speed of descent and effort of ascent, not to mention the constant maintenance – but the exercise and exhilaration it brought her was worth it.

She waved at shopkeepers and passers-by as she whizzed down the bumpy, cobblestone paths, slapping her tricorn hat back into place when she could. The streets seemed a bit less busy than usual, and Rorie wondered if some scheduling foul-up at the docks had led to larger-than-normal crowds down there.

Every storefront she passed had its decorations up: wreaths and candles and garlands, trees dotted with glass baubles and even flashing electric lights for the businesses who’d taken in enough money to afford a steam or petrol generator.

Rorie had hired someone to decorate her own shop, and they’d done a good job, as she’d hoped. In a town like Chief Quay, it was borderline apostasy not to decorate for Christmas, even if the holiday held no meaning for you.

One last sharp corner before the warehouse, and this time Rorie’s hat almost flew off for real. She turned the handlebars with one hand in a death grip and clamped down on her errant headwear with the other. The downslope smoothed out and Rorie had to pedal the rest of the way, feeling the slow burn spread through her calves and thighs.

Not for the first time, she gave thanks to live in a land where women wearing trousers was only a tiny bit scandalous. Trying to operate this bicycle in a dress with full petticoats would have been beyond a nightmare.

She counter-rotated the pedals to slow the bike, slewing to a stop just outside the warehouse’s main doors. A large facility, and all hers, though she did rent out space from time to time, especially during busy holidays. Last Valentine’s Day, the place had been filled with the scent of flowers as the local florist dealt with excessive orders and overstock from enthusiastic lovers.

Rorie thought of that, and of the multi-colored lights rimming the doorway of the warehouse, and wondered if there was a single holiday she didn’t find distasteful.

Then, with a blink and a shake of her head, she wondered what in the world was happening. As she flipped the kickstand on her bicycle into place, steadying it outside the warehouse, she looked around.

No one was doing a lick of work.

The space should have been swarming like an anthill with a teakettle upended into it. Wheeled carts shifting cargo in and out, track-staff checking invoices and crate branding, and a general sense of near-mania. Not…nothing at all.

Workers leaned against what few crates stood, chatting. Two burly stevedores even had a card game going on top of a barrel. No wagons stood at the loading bays, all of which were shuttered. A couple of stray cats, animals that normally kept away from the warehouse due to all the noise and tromping boots, sauntered along, pausing for pets and scratches from the idle staff.

Rorie looked upon all of this with confusion, wonder, and finally anger. She raised her hands to clap for attention and drew breath to punctuate it with a shout, when Liszt ran to her side, breathless. The Aelvesh woman carried her clipboard, as she always did, but it bore no papers. Rorie couldn’t remember ever having seen that clipboard empty.

“Liszt,” Rorie said, coughing a little from scaling down from a full-on shout to a sharp hiss. “What goes on?”

Liszt fiddled with one of her pointy ear-tops, a nervous gesture as rarely-seen as an empty clipboard. As she spoke, Amherst, a brick wall of a man, spotted the women and headed toward them.

“Miz Q,” Liszt said, frowning. “Something’s happened down at the docks. Amherst is supposed to figure out – oh, here he is.”

Amherst’s bushy beard was bent at the mouth with a scowl to match Liszt’s. “The bailiffs have cordoned off the docks,” he said, his piping voice not matching his height and girth. “No one’s saying why, and the people down there are stuck inside the barricades.”

“I watched the ships come in this morning,” Rorie said, crossing her arms. “Everything went smooth as soap.”

“Whatever happened,” Liszt said, “it’s put everything in a standstill. No couriers with manifests, not a peep from the tax office – and you know they always have a watchdog here as soon as the sun comes aflame.”

“I’m sorry for the lads,” Amherst said, gesturing around at his lazing crew, even dipping his arm as it swept to indicate one of the stray cats. “There’s just…nowt to do. We cleared out space for the new shipments, moved the outgoing to the loading spots, and then…nowt.”

The cat began bathing itself.

“Has anyone gone down to the docks themselves?” Rorie asked.

Her two managers shook their heads. “We thought we ought to stay in case the logjam broke. As busy as we typically are, it’s going to be non-stop once they sort this out,” said Liszt.

“Very well,” Rorie said, scratching at her temple. “Get everyone back to readiness. At least break up the card game, for heaven’s sake. Find those cats some mice to kill; they need to earn their keep.” She squared her shoulders and turned to leave.

“Are you going to open the shop?” Liszt asked.

“No,” said Rorie, heading for her bicycle. “I’m going to put a boot up that logjam’s arse.”


Back on a downslope, the remaining bike ride took no time at all, but Rorie slowed as she reached the harbor. Even if she’d been blind, she would have known when she’d reached her destination. There was an almost physical change in the air after a certain point: it became chillier, thicker, redolent with the scent of salt and ocean-cured wood.

But with her eyes, she could see the rumors trickling uphill to the warehouse were true. Bailiffs, arms crossed and truncheons at the ready, stood in regular spacing in front of sawhorses arranged to block off the street. On either side of the barricades, crowds crushed, divided into those who wanted in and those who needed out.

Neither group seemed to be getting their way.

She could pick out shouts from the protesting, flanking crowds. “Let us in!” “Let us out!”

From the guardians: “Please keep calm!” “We’re sorting things out, just be patient!”

And, at least once from somewhere: “We’re all going to die!”

Rorie hopped off her bike and walked it as close as she dared, shaking her head at peoples’ endless capacity to overreact.

“Miz Quarry,” a woman called out, and Rorie swept her gaze over the kept-out crowd until she saw a waving figure: Nella Fagen, who owned the dairy farm outside of town. They knew each other and were acquaintance-pleasant in the way of successful business-people whose customer bases overlapped.

“Nella,” Rorie said, sweeping an arm to encompass the chaos. “No one told me it was National Go-Mad Day.”

“So you’ve not heard?” Nella gave a nearby bailiff a pointed gaze, and tucked a hand in Rorie’s elbow, guiding her a few paces back.

“Just that this was going on, but nothing about what caused it.”

Nella nodded. “The lawkeepers are trying to nail the lid down on a burst barrel,” she whispered, “but word’s getting out.”

Rorie shook her head. “You can just tell me, Nella, it’s not like we’re -”

Nella shushed her, and took her down a nearby side street, Rorie dragging the bike along. In the wide alley, they quickly strode to a building that had a salt-corroded iron ladder bolted to its brickwork. A couple of urchins hung from the ladder, and Nella shooed them away. She looked around, then waggled her hand between Rorie and the ladder. “Up you get.”

Rorie looked at the decaying ladder with a skeptical squint. “Nella,” she said again, “you can just tell -”

Nella shook her head, wide-eyed and serious. “Hand to heart, Miz Quarry, you wouldn’t believe me.”

Rorie looked at her a second longer. “Watch my bicycle,” she said, and, with a grunt, hoisted herself up the ladder, rung by creaking, pitted rung.

At the top, she found a group of townspeople already there, gathered at the edge of the roof facing the docks. Rorie strode over, getting tired of the secrecy, the craziness, and the delays that were sucking money out of her coffers by the minute. She inserted a hand, gently but firmly, between a couple of brushing shoulders, and squeezed in so she could see.

And finally joined everyone else in feeling a jolt of fear.

The ship sat, like a bloated, scabrous beetle, in the last empty dock she’d seen before leaving her watch to get dressed. The craft was painted tar-black, with even its sails dark as oil.

But the blackness wasn’t the worst part. Painted at regular intervals along the hull were large white skulls. A bright skull had been likewise sewn into the fabric of all the sails.

They sent a message, those grim symbols, to pirates and freebooters: this ship carries only death. Plunder it at your absolute peril. Ships like that hauled only the deadliest cargo: fatal magics, poisons, deadly beasts from monstrous continents.

Those ships carried things that were never supposed to be brought to civilian harbors, and everyone who dealt with the sea had a name for them.

Dread Freight.

Rorie felt the roof sway, the slightest buckling beneath her feet, and she recalled that one hysterical shout from the crowd…

We’re all going to die.


Today’s Words: 1634
Total Words: 2687


Notes: I may not be able to write every day on this, as I was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday. Hopefully it’s not a holiday cold…


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!

Life of Spice: Day One

By Stephen Couch

Chapter 1: In Between Days

The ships came in that morning, their hulls repainted in holiday green, red, and white. Multicolored lights adorned their prows and masts, blinking out of time with each other but no less merrily for it. From the right angle, it looked like a swarm of fireflies in every color of the rainbow was descending upon the harbor.

First light in the seaside town of Chief Quay, the sun barely peeping over the horizon, but already the townsfolk were up and active. Trade and commerce waited for no one, and sleep was just a hindrance to getting work done. There was cargo to be loaded and unloaded, crews to be fed and doctored, and mounds of paperwork greater in size than any sea vessel to be filled out.

The ships came in that morning as they did every morning, and the arrival of the Christmas season only added to the volume and complexity of their dealings.

Up the hill from the shore, Rorie watched from her balcony as the ships glided into position, dock by dock, and wondered what new headaches they brought.

She sipped her hot chocolate, careful not to daub her nose in the dollop of mallow-fluff on top, and exhaled, her breath coaxing a waft of steam from the mug. From her eyes, the steam looked like a roll of fog creeping in to obscure the dockyards. For a moment, she let herself dream it was exactly that: a fog that killed visibility, keeping the ships at bay for a time, stopping the flow of trade for just a couple of hours. Just long enough for her to sleep in this morning, for once.

Rorie laughed at that, and the steam swirled and broke apart, bringing the dockyards into sharp focus once again. Rest? No such thing, not in the life of a trader. Any time of day, someone in the world was awake and willing to give you money for what you had to offer. So, you grabbed sleep when you could, ate when you were able, and took a moment to rest and contemplate – preferably with a mug of hot chocolate – at times like these, when business ground to a brief but inevitable halt as the ships sailed into port.

She turned to the small, framed portrait fixed to the doorway at such an angle so that it, too, looked out from the balcony. Prester’s face, with that wry smile of his, gazed back at her.

“Almost three years, love,” she told the little painting. “I’ve managed not to run us into the ground yet. What do you think of that?”

Rorie took another drink as the painting said nothing. This time, she got a blob of mallow on her nose and wiped it away with the baggy sleeve of her flannel robe, smiling at her clumsiness. She probably shouldn’t put the sweet froth on top of her cocoa, but some traditions were hard to break, like standing watch as the ships sailed in each morning.

Like talking to her husband’s picture when he’d been dead since nearly three winters ago.

Three winters ago, Rorie hadn’t spoken to him when he’d said, “I’m catching a ship out to shift some cargo from that other craft. The one with the hull breach.” They’d had a fight the night before over something silly and inconsequential, and she was still feeling spiky and petulant that morning, not wanting to acknowledge him.

Prester never came home. Those who did said the sinking cargo ship had created too much suction going down, pulling a couple other craft into collision as it did. Not many hands survived.

Rorie turned back to gaze out over Chief Quay, watching the people leave their homes to head to the docks or their businesses elsewhere in town. Smoke rose from chimneys in regular gray columns, and lights winked on in windows in greater and greater numbers.

The wind shifted, sharp and quick, and Rorie took a step back as it fluttered her robe and sent the smell of chocolate back to her. She breathed in the rich scent gratefully.

Once, a wind like that would have run its fingers through her long, blonde hair, riffling it behind her like a pennant. But in the madness of mourning, she’d chopped off her locks into an angular, boyish cut she’d kept ever since.

She put her mouth close to the mug and slurped up most of the mallow-fluff before taking her next sip. The sweetness almost overwhelmed her, and she closed her eyes, noting only a couple of dock-spaces had yet to fill.

To the warehouse first, as normal, to make sure all the day’s paperwork was in order. Manifests and invoices and order slips and pay stubs and…Liszt would be doing her typical stellar job of keeping all the papers present and correct, while down on the floor proper, Amherst would be doing an equally good job of making sure what cargo need to go, went, and what needed to arrive, came.

They hardly needed her at all, but it was Rorie and Prester’s name on the company. If she didn’t put in an appearance, she’d feel guilty.

After the warehouse came the trek to the harbor. Again, she wasn’t needed there, but the daily walk had become as much superstition as anything else.

And then, a quick trip back home to bathe and open the one place she did still feel needed: the storefront for Quarry Exotic Spices, which took up the bottom story of her home.

Rorie drained the mug even though it was still a bit too hot, grimaced at the bitter dregs of undissolved chocolate, and went inside to get dressed. On the way, one more piece of the morning ritual: a kiss to her fingers, and a press of those fingers on Prester’s portrait.

“Another day,” she said, and made herself smile.

The painting, as always, smiled back at her, genuine and pure.

Rorie stepped out of the cold and into her quarters, closing the balcony door behind her.

She left too soon to see the final ship cruise into position at the last remaining dock, and closed the door too soon to hear the uproar and panic its arrival caused at the harbor.


Today’s Words: 1053
Total Words: 1053


Notes: Away we go…!


I’m attempting to write a Christmas-themed fantasy novel in December! Come back for new chapters every day…ish!

Life of Spice: Day Zero

They say when you’re thrown by a horse, the best thing to do is get back on, no matter how many horrific internal injuries and broken bones you may have suffered. Even if said horse staved your skull in with an expertly-aimed hoof, you get back on!

So, in light of this year’s Halloween novel falling apart on me, I’m going to try something new but old: writing a Christmas-themed novel over the course of December.

Starts tomorrow — hope you’ll drop by and check it out!