Excerpt from The Low Road

Excerpt from The Low Road by Gail Z. Martin

First published in Spells and Swashbucklers by DragonMoon Press (2012)


Despite our quest, my mood lifted as we left the gray North Atlantic for the warmer waters of the Caribbean.  We easily kept the merchant ship in our sights, with a plan to attack that night, before we reached Bermudian waters.  Yet even the warmer temperature and bright sunlight couldn’t drive away my sense of misgiving.  And the nearer we came to Bermuda, the more my magic tingled in the back of my mind.  There was something strange about these waters.  Growing up along the coast, I’d heard stories of ships lost to pirates and to the treacherous reefs.  There were dozens, maybe hundreds of ships that had gone down over the last few hundred years in the shipping lanes between Bermuda and the mainland.  Some blamed it on reefs while others cursed fickle winds and dangerous currents.  But as we sailed onward, I recognized another reason these waters had become a graveyard of ships.  Magic.

I could feel the wild magic on my skin, making the hairs on my arms rise.  It waxed and waned like the wind, swirled in eddies no one else could see, and slipped along the surface of the sea in places, racing the current.  It was a tinderbox, waiting for a spark.

“Do you think he knows we’re here?”  Coltt asked.

“More to the point—if he did know, would he care?”  I wasn’t sure what the limits were for the magic of those confounded boxes, or what type of magic it was.  The sooner they were off Lawry’s ship and onto ours, the happier I’d be.

While the Vengeance couldn’t outgun a warship, our guns were more than adequate for frightening a merchant ship into submission.  Adjusting our sails, we quickly pulled up alongside the Sea Lass, and readied our guns for a shot across their bow.  But as my men went to load the cannons, the Sea Lass slowed and came around, and as it did so, wooden panels in the sides opened up, baring the muzzles of twenty cannons.  That was five more cannon than the Vengeance carried, which wasn’t good.  We looked up to see Lawry smirking at us from the deck, which now brimmed with heavily armed pirates, not the passive merchants we expected.

Shots fired, close at hand.  I looked up to see that eight of the ten new sailors I had hired in Philadelphia stood armed, their flintlocks pointed at the rest of the crew. Grappling hooks flew through the air, pulling the Vengeance closer to the “merchant” ship as rope ladders were flung over the larger ship’s sides and dozens of invaders scurried down the ropes to land on the Vengeance’s deck.

“My sources were quick to tell me of your interest in my ship,”  Lawry taunted. “It didn’t take much to buy the loyalty of your newest crewmen.  You seemed quite fascinated with my expedition at the reception,” he said, fixing his gaze on me.  “You’re just in time to see the real show.”

Lawry’s pirates and the turncoat sailors prodded the rest of us to climb the rope ladders that hung from the sides of Lawry’s Sea Lass.  We were badly outnumbered and while we would have given them a fight for their money had we the chance to draw our guns, as it was, we were outmatched.

“Where are your divers?” I challenged Lawry.  “Is this really all about retrieving treasure from old shipwrecks?”

Lawry did not answer.  He sent the majority of his sailors and the traitors from my crew back to their posts with a jerk of his head.  Several armed guards herded most of my loyal crewmembers into the hold, while Lawry and three of his guards motioned for me, Coltt and two of my crew into his cabin.

There on the desk in his cabin sat the mirrored cube Coltt had spotted in Lawry’s room back in Charleston.  And as Lawry entered the cabin and locked the door behind him, I saw the small cube on its chain around his neck.  Lawry wore a triumphant smile, and the armed guards made him bold.

“Treasure is only part of it,” he said.  “Have you never heard the strange tales about these waters?  Even the Spaniards whisper about the number of ships that have gone missing and the odd things they’ve seen if they were lucky to pass this way and leave alive.  Some blame the currents and some say it’s the winds, but I know the truth of it,” Lawry said with a conspiratorial grin.  “It’s the magic.”

I remembered how my own powers had sensed the oddness of the magic in this place, how my nerves jangled and my skin crawled.  “Magic?” I said, wondering whether Lawry could sense my power.  I clamped down my shielding, just in case.

Lawry lifted the small cube on its chain and caressed it with his fingers.  “I intend to own these waters.  I’ll turn the wild magic to do my bidding, and when I am the master of this sea, I’ll have the power to take Bermuda for my own.  We’ll control this shipping lane and all who want to pass will pay tribute or be destroyed.  We’ll have gold aplenty from the wrecks, and time enough to loot them when our men aren’t waylaying ships.”

“How do you plan to do that?  There’s a British fort on Bermuda.  Magic or not, why would they just give up without a fight?”

Lawry’s smile broadened.  “Let me show you.”  He jerked his head, and two of his guards pushed one of my crewmen forward.  Lawry removed the cube necklace from around his neck and held it out toward the frightened hostage.  The mirrored surface of the cube began to shimmer and glow.  It flared, and for an instant, I thought I saw a reflection of the crewman’s terrified face reflected and distorted in its surface before the man fell down dead without a word.

Coltt and I surged forward to take Lawry, but the guards held us back.  He turned his cube on the second crewman, who met the same fate as the first.  This time, I was certain that I saw a reflection of his face on the small cube.

“What is that thing?”

Lawry fingered the cube fondly.  “A tool.  What matters more are the souls in my cache that amplify my magic, giving me the power to bend this region’s wild magic to my will.”  He walked over to the large cube and held the small cube out toward it.  Both cubes pulsed with a bright glow, and I felt a surge of old, strange magic as a flicker of light moved from the small cube to the large one.  Worse than that, in my mind, I heard both of my crewmen scream, and I knew in every fiber of my body that it was their souls held prisoner within that awful cube.