Today is RELEASE DAY for Beneath Cruel Fathoms!!
This was one of the harder books I’ve written. It took longer than expected to finish, required loads of research, and dealt with a topic that is very personal to me. Beginning to end, it threw a lot of surprises into my path and had me scratching my head going, “Well. That was unexpected.” I had an outline, people. I swear.
And today, I sent it out into the world. Phew, where’s that glass of wine? 😉
After a violent storm destroys her ship, Isaura Johansdottir knows better than to hope she’ll be rescued from Eisland’s vast Failock Sea. Adrift and alone, her plans to start over lost, it’s a tragic conclusion after the disastrous end of her marriage—until she’s saved by Leonel, one of the merfolk, a creature long believed extinct. In repayment for her life, Leonel enlists her help to investigate the Failock’s mysterious and deadly plague of squalls. When Isaura discovers Eisland’s ruthless new Lord commands the storms, her life will be in more danger on land than it ever was at sea.
As guardian of the Fathoms, Leonel must find the cause of unnatural storms ravaging the tidal currents and destroying the sea life. There are rumors of dark magic stirring in the Orom Abyss, the resting place of old, vanquished gods who tried to submerge the land millennia ago. Yet without proof, no one in King Ægir’s court will listen to him. And if it’s discovered he broke the Blue Laws to save a shipwrecked landweller, he might not survive the consequences.
As storms spread, Leonel and Isaura uncover secrets as forbidden as the bond that grows between them. Betrayal lurks in the restless sea, and when ancient powers lay siege to Eisland’s coast, the truth may be drowned along with everything else.
The Failock Sea spoke gently.
From within her quarters aboard the Visundr, Isaura listened to the steady ritual of nighttime waves brushing against the hull and the relative quiet of the ship. Most of the men would be in their bunks by now, leaving the night crew to man the cargo freighter until dawn. If she wanted to go out there, this was the moment.
As had been her routine each evening, Isaura cracked open her cabin door to listen. The sea breeze streamed in like a visitor she’d been ignoring, ruffling the strands of blonde hair that had escaped the hood of her cloak. Hearing nothing more than the murmur of sailors and the creak of ropes, Isaura stole out from her cabin for the breath of fresh air she’d been longing for all day. This was the only time she could be sure Captain Wendelsson had retired to his bunk and would be unavailable to herd her back inside like some vulnerable lamb wandering away from the flock.
When she’d negotiated her passage aboard his ship, she had agreed to obey his rules while on board, she just hadn’t expected one of them to be so outrageous. Her ability to accede to his edict that a single and unchaperoned woman should not traipse about the deck had expired within a day of this two-week journey from Dinark to Eisland. Isaura made other arrangements to secure her freedom of movement—even an unaccompanied woman was entitled to air, wasn’t she?—and sailors taking the night shift were more than happy to exchange their silence for the services of a healer. She had only just finished her apprenticeship, but natural talent and five years learning from renowned healer Hekla Larsdottir inspired their confidence where her twenty-five years might not.
The wheelman, Gunnar, sighted her as she stepped onto the deck. He shot a quick look toward the entrance to the crew cabins and then beckoned her over with a toothy smile.
“I’d hoped you might come out. Watch your step now. Kristofer’s been decorating the wood from his watch,” he nodded toward the crow’s nest at the top of the mast he stood beside, then gestured at deck boards. Even in the dim light of the lantern secured beside the wheel, Isaura made out the chunky splatters speckling the area.
She stepped carefully around them, wrinkling her nose. “Is he sick?”
“Ate something what didn’t agree with him.”
“Like the cheese I told him he’s allergic to?”
“Aye,” he chuckled, swiping wisps of his frothy red hair out of his wind-worn face. “Said he couldn’t believe the gods would be cruel enough to cleave him from his favorite food. He sent a few coins over the side in appeal to Ægir and supped on both cheese and faith.”
And idiocy. Isaura dug into the satchel slung across her shoulder. “What did he think the Lord of the Ocean could do to alleviate a dairy allergy? That’s not exactly His domain.”
Gunnar shrugged. “A sailor knows better than to pray to other gods whilst crossing the Sea King’s territory, especially with the temper of this year’s storm season.”
That was true enough. Several ships had gone down in recent months. Even in the midst of sorting through the wreckage of her life, the news of them had reached Isaura’s ears. No survivors, only bits and pieces of debris scattered across the white-capped waves. Not all storms were spun by the gods of Aegirheim, but even the oldest sailors couldn’t recall when the sea had been as treacherous as this.
Isaura had planned to wait for a calmer season before leaving the greater isle of Dinark for Eisland. After that day at the market though, drowning by sea sounded preferable to drowning by sorrow. Now that she was out here, remembering those accounts turned her gaze skyward with a nervous pang.
She needn’t have worried. The night sky twinkled quietly above, the breeze a steady puff against the sails, and although she could not see the slide and shift of the waves, they whispered an untroubled hiss from the darkness. All was well.
A low call came from the crow’s nest. The flicker of the distant torch high above outlined the silhouette of someone leaning over the railing of the basket.
“Keep your voice down lest you want the captain to come out,” Gunnar called back in the same lowered tone, cupping his hands around his mouth. He turned back to her. “I don’t suppose you have something in your miracle bag to stop that fool boy from painting the ship more than he has? We’ll be up swabbing the deck till midday as it is.”
Isaura grimaced sympathetically and retrieved the tonic she’d been looking for from her satchel. “Two draughts now and two at sunrise,” she instructed. “That should settle the digestive upset.”
Gunnar took the clay flask and set it in the canvas sack sitting on a loop of rope at the base of the mast. With a quick whistle, he signaled with his hands—two fingers, then two fingers again—before sending the sack upward on the pulley. When it arrived, the silhouette dipped down to retrieve it, then signaled something back.
“He sends his thanks,” Gunner told her.
“It’s my pleasure.”
“Do you mean to head to your spot, miss, or have you inhaled enough of the perfume Kristofer provided us down here?”
That had been her intention, but the night was cooler than she’d expected, her fingers already stiff since she’s forgotten to bring her gloves. Still, the quiet of her cabin made her chest feel tight and her thoughts deafening. She usually slept better after she spent time in the night air with the Failock’s song filling her head.
“I think I’ll take in the view a few minutes before heading in.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it you look at from the prow? Not much to see in the dark.”
It was hard to explain why the absence of a view comforted her. For some reason, she liked the inability to see ahead. No reason to worry about what might happen if you didn’t know it was there. Then again, being blind to things hadn’t spared her from any heartbreak.
“It helps me clear my head,” she told Gunnar.
The wheelman nodded, as if that made perfect sense. “Not too long, if you please. Captain’s been checking in on us at odd times and I’d rather he didn’t decide his night crew needs a flogging for insubordination.”
She gaped. “Would he really do that?”
“He’s in a mood this trip.”
“Because of me,” she sighed in exasperation. “What is Wendelsson’s displeasure with me? I paid him well and haven’t gotten in anyone’s way.”
“Captain’s not used to passengers, this being a cargo ship. And, well,” Gunnar offered a slight smile that gentled the blunt words that came next, “might be he resents not having a choice in the matter, what with you mentioning your father’s name.”
“I never gave him my father’s name. Only mine.”
“Johansdottir, you told him, on your way to Eisland to see your father. There’s but one Johan living there, and no man, even a captain, would refuse to bring home the daughter of a celebrated knight such as he, retired or not. As I’m sure you knew, miss, smart as you are.”
She didn’t try to argue it. He was right. In a week’s time, a passenger liner could’ve taken her, but she hadn’t wanted to wait. She couldn’t bear another seven days. If she were honest, she had more or less bullied her way aboard, forcing the captain to make adjustments, including, though she’d argued it unnecessary, giving up his cabin to ensure she slept secure and separate from the crew.
Isaura stared at her boots. “I never meant to be a nuisance.”
“Not to worry, miss. We’ve had a merry time watching the captain bluster and stomp,” Gunnar replied, all smirk. “Haven’t had a ship’s healer in a few voyages neither, which has been fine indeed.”
She smiled and patted his shoulder. “You’re a kind man, Gunnar.”
“Might be that I am. Just don’t mention it to Kristofer. When I tell him I mean to toss him overboard if he so much as looks at cheese again, I want him to believe it.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” she laughed as she stepped away. “I won’t stay out here long.”
The wind had picked up, blustery and damp. Isaura pulled her cloak tighter around herself, grateful she’d remembered to put on that second pair of woolen stockings under her layered skirts. The darkness greeted her as she reached the prow and braced her forearms against the railing. The shredded sigh of waves splitting against the Visundr’s nose echoed from the inky black.
Isaura stared into the absent horizon. Tonight, it gave no comfort, the initial pleasure of the open air blowing away like the gusts skimming past her cheeks. Six months ago, she would not have believed she’d be traveling home to Eisland, or that she’d even think of the rural isle of her childhood as home again. Dinark, the kingdom’s Great Isle and glittering capital, had become home to her. Love and her studies had made it so, even in five short years. Hekla, her mentor and friend, had filled her days with purpose and learning, while Jan’s loving arms met her in their little home each evening.
Isaura’s thumb rubbed at the ident on her finger where her wedding band had rested. She wondered if Jan had retrieved the ring from the floorboards after she’d chucked it at him, if he’d dredged up more emotion than that infuriating calm he had used to tell her it was over.
“Isaura, aren’t you tired of pretending?”
It didn’t matter, she informed the wounded, bitter pit lodged in her guts. That life was gone. That love, too, was over, no matter how much passion Jan had professed at the beginning. A lesson in managing expectations, really. Why had she thought he would still love her after learning she was broken?
With difficulty, she pushed the thought of him aside. Better to think ahead to the reunion waiting for her on Eisland, and her father’s enthusiastic letter of reply when she’d written to say she was coming. For a visit. Shame had kept her from telling him of her failed marriage or asking to move back to the family farm as she had no home to return to in Dinark. He would take her in, blessed as she was with the best of fathers, but her need for it, at her age, was humiliating.
Maybe it was better not to think of this either.
Instead, her hand went to the silver broach on the collar of her dress, a farewell gift from Hekla. Isaura had gone slightly faint at the sight of her mentor pinning the Helm of Awe there. The eight spiked tridents tipped with onyx gems radiated out from a central point, a symbol of both protection and strength.
“But I’ve only just completed my studies,” she’d argued. “I haven’t earned the healer’s sigil yet.”
Hekla had brushed aside her hands, ivory braids swaying as she shook her head. “Then do so,” she told her and pulled her into a tight embrace. “One day, and not far off, your skill will surpass mine. May it remind you of your worth and that not all love is fickle.”
Love and friendship. Shame and heartache. Endings and beginnings. Such was the storm of Isaura’s thoughts that she didn’t notice the pungent scent of rain until she turned to go back to her cabin and glanced upward. The stars had disappeared.
A jagged bolt of lightning ripped across the sky and illuminated a monstrous spiral of clouds. She gasped. The clouds hung so low they almost snagged on the mast. Kristofer’s warning cry went up from the crow’s nest.
The word sent a jolt of confounded terror through her. A typhoon? That wasn’t possible. Typhoons occurred in warmer climates, far south of the kingdom’s chilly northern isles. Another crackling blaze of lightning fractured the sky and sent an avalanche of rain plummeting down, soaking her through in an instant.
The crew swarmed onto the deck, appearing as if out of the rain itself, rushing to take down the sails and secure anything loose. She spotted Captain Wendelsson with them. His bellowed orders threaded the rising wail of the storm, though Isaura couldn’t make them out. Thunder roared. Waves slammed against the hull and she gripped the railing with both hands to keep from being thrown from her feet. She caught a glimpse of three men grappling with the spinning wheel at the helm before someone seized her arm.
Her startled shout was lost to the wind. Gunnar stood beside her, his red hair gone black where it plastered to his brow. He shouted something she didn’t hear. She followed when he tugged her away from the railing. His sea legs far sturdier than hers on the lurching deck, he guided them between the chaos of men toward the quarterdeck and the ladder that led to the crew cabins. There, he paused.
“Get below,” he had to shout in her ear for her to catch any of his words. “Lock yourself in quarters and find something to hold on to.”
She nodded with a glance toward the crew. Her eye landed on Captain Wendelsson. The expression on his face was frighteningly neutral, like a man concealing all emotion lest he give away the truth of his thoughts. She’d seen Hekla wear the same one around dying patients.
Fear squeezed her heart. She needed to let Gunnar get back to the wheel, but couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Is the ship going to make it?”
Gunnar was less skilled at hiding his thoughts, his eyes wide with alarm. “Storm feels wrong. Unnatural to come up like this.” He shook his head. “If we have to abandon ship, the life rafts are on the starboard—”
The hairs on the nape of her neck rose and Gunnar whirled around. A spear of lightning dropped from the swollen sky. It impaled the main mast, a needle of white flame. The wood cracked like a cannon shot, splintering as it snapped in half. The thrashing outline of Kristofer where he tumbled from the crow’s nest followed the sails as they fell into the sea.
The ship pitched down sharply, hurling Isaura and Gunnar away from the ladder. She lost sight of him. A wall of seawater muscled over the railing. It swept her off her feet, thrusting her up a deck turned vertical. Then the ship righted, the water rushing back and taking her with it. She skidded across the deck, arms flailing for purchase in the utter darkness. Before she could find it, she bashed into something. Hard. The impact jarred her back and almost knocked her senseless. Distantly, she was aware of rolling, of crashing through the railing and falling.
It felt like forever, a suspended moment without beginning or end—until she plunged into the frigid shock of the sea. Icy cold raked her body and brought her back to herself. Waves swarmed her, shoved her down, sideways, up. Seawater filled her mouth. Panic filled her belly. Her skirts tentacled her legs in heavy fabric while the Failock tossed her around like a toy. She fought with all the desperate fervor of trapped prey, thrashing, gasping for tiny sips of air before the waves pushed her head under. When her arm bumped against an object, one her body recognized as something other than the liquid iron of the sea, she grasped it. Her fingers closed around the slanted rim. A skiff? One of the life rafts? The rescue it offered sent relief and terror and dread through her all at once. It could save her. It could be torn away.
Isaura didn’t know how she held on to it with her numb fingers. Didn’t know how she managed to clamber into its narrow shell without capsizing it, but she did. She lay on her back, gripping either side while the rain battered her face and the waves punished her injured back. She held on all night. She held on until the scream of the wind quieted until the shear and crest of the waves gentled, and the sky bled with the colors of dawn. She survived. She wept for it and for the souls who had drowned with the noble Visundr. Gunnar, Kristofer, and all the others.
It wasn’t until the end of the following day that she realized it would have been better if she’d drowned along with them.
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