At the helm of the ship she stood, still and silent in the night, her long blonde hair flowing around her shoulders, sea blue eyes staring out from pale, clear skin. She frowned, and not a single crease appeared on her face. She was as perfect and flawless as the masthead that was nailed to the front of the ship. Amongst the sailors that had seen the ship, she was nothing more than a myth, a legend and a challenge.
If you saw her flawless beauty up close, and made it back to shore, then you would be counted one of the luckiest men alive.
Of course many saw her from afar; for where else would the legends spring from?
At one of those many holes where sailors gather to swap tales and drinks, a young man searched out one of the few left who had seen her up close.
He pushed open the door of an old, run down public house and stepped into its crowded inside. He saw a few glance at him before looking away; after all there was nothing unusual about a boy on the brink of adulthood, barely older than nineteen, searching in the drinking hovels for men to take him under their wing.
None of them wanted to take on the boy; they'd seen his kind before. So they turned away and returned to their drinks, arguments and discussions.
The young man pushed through the crowd until he reached the bar, and smiled sweetly at the woman behind it. Her huge bosoms were almost falling out of her tight dress, and she laughed as she gazed at him.
"You won't find no ship to take you here boy."
"That's not what I'm looking for." He replied, scratching at his arm. "I'm looking for Robert Smythe."
The barmaid frowned, leant across one of the pumps and stared at the boy. "And why would you be looking for old Bob?"
"I have business with him." He replied curtly, keeping his eyes on her face, struggling not to take a sneak peek down her dress.
The barmaid waved a hand towards a door that led into a private room. "He's a crazy old man, tread lightly boy."
He nodded, thanked her and walked briskly towards the door.
He stepped into a room that was full of smoke, the strong stench of tobacco filled his nostrils and involuntarily he let out a cough.
"What would a young lad like ye what with a poor old man?" The Scottish accent filled the boy's ears, and slowly he stepped forward, to see a man with greying hair and lines etched over his face standing at the closed window, smoking a pipe. The old man cast his grey eyes on the boy, before letting out a sigh. "I told 'em time and time again, don't go chasing her."
"So you know why I am here?"
The man let out a laugh, followed by a cough, and waved at the small table and chairs set out between them. Both took their seat, facing each other. The man crossed his arms on the table, staring hard at the boy. "What's your name?"
"Well, Edward, why do you seek the Maiden of the Damned?"
"Because I have travelled on ships that have passed her sir. I have glimpsed her from afar. I have something to prove, and by seeing her up close..."
"You do not think that everyone who comes looking for me has something to prove?"
"I am sure they do."
"So why do you feel you will succeed where they have failed?"
The boy was silent on this point, staring hard at the table. Robert took a deep breath.
"I did not look for her boy, she found me. Did ye know that?"
"Do ye know any of the tale at all?"
"I know you saw her up close, that you were captured on the ship and set free."
He chuckled. "Then ye know the basics lad. I assume you heard these from the rumours floating around?"
"Yes. But I discredited most of the wilder parts of the tale."
"Then perhaps you should hear the firsthand account?"
"Please." He leant forward eagerly, unable to hide his curiosity now as he stared at the old man.
"Alright then lad, you're going to be here a long time."
It must have been almost forty years ago now, when I was not that much older than yourself. A young lad, looking for his place in the world, I managed to get on one of the Stanger slave ships. Ah, so you tried that route too? Then you know that now the Stanger's are losing in that trade, but back then they were thriving.
We were crossing over to America, the Caribbean. Have you ever been there boy? No? It's beautiful, a magnificent land. If you ever get on a crossing to go there, then it will be the best sight you will ever see. Of course the crossing is dangerous, but that trip, we made it there safely. We deposited our slaves, and set sail back to England.
I was looking forward to getting back home, was planning on taking a short trip to see my family in Scotland. A few days into the journey though, and we saw a sight that sent fear into all our hearts.
Flying above a black ship was the Jolly Rodger, and something told every sailor on that ship that it wasn't going to be a peaceful passing.
Immediately, our Captain sent the orders around; up went the white flag to fly beneath the Union Jack, the soldiers on board got ready in case they decided to fight despite the peace offering. The black ship pulled alongside us, and there we saw her, standing on the ship beside the wheel.
You've heard the tales boy; you said you saw her yourself. Well, unless the ship is right beside you, then you have no idea of her beauty. It was breathtaking, especially after we hadn't seen a woman for days.
Along with their own Captain, she came onto the ship. Before or since, I haven't seen any that beautiful. And I pray I never do. It was the kind of beauty that can drive a man wild, make them lose their senses. The beauty that only demons possess.
I told you this was almost forty years ago, but from what I've heard from sailors like yourself, she hasn't changed at all. That should give you enough clue to her evilness.
Someone else, you say? Ah boy, to possess the ignorance of the young. No. She is one and the same.
Don't look offended; when you get to my age you understand that at twenty, at thirty even, you know nothing of the world.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I know everything. But I know one thing; the demon that guards that ship is not a woman. She is not natural, in the slightest.
I never saw a look of fear on my Captain's face as the one that was fixed then, never knew him to falter as much as he did as he climbed down from his post and crossed to greet the invading man.
But it was not their own Captain who stepped forward. It was her, the demon.
"Captain," I can still remember her voice to this day, a silky sweet voice that had almost every man within hearing under its control "This ship and its men are now ours, do you understand?"
"Good." She nodded, and her Captain smiled, bowing his head slightly. She smiled then, the kind of smile that melts your heart and makes you wonder what you could do for a woman like that. She turned to the men waiting on the other ship and waved a hand towards us. "Kill them."
Boy, I hope you never face a situation like that. My blood ran cold; I'll remember that feeling for the rest of my life. I was scared, terrified, and judging by the smell so were my companions. A lad near me actually shat himself, the rest of us were sweating.
She laughed then, a cold cruel laugh. Yet that laugh was still full of beauty, almost a song to our ears. I tell you now; it almost made me happy, the idea that at least I'd have heard that laugh before I died.
"Scared you boys?" She asked, her eyes scanning over us, seeming to land on each one in turn. She pointed some of us out. "That one, him, that one, there, he'll do...yes, yes, yes..." Her finger landed on me, and she grinned. "Oh defiantly."
I shuddered under her cold gaze. What could she possibly want from me?
She took a deep breath, a smile lingering. "The rest, kill."
With that, I saw the pirates crossing onto our deck, and then the slaughter started. Those of us she had pointed out were grabbed and roughly dragged onto the pirate ship.
As I was brought across, I glanced behind to see what had been my home for so long covered in blood. In my ears I could hear my heart thumping, responding to my rough handling. My friends, colleagues and superiors were being killed before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
We were bundled up and locked in the cells they had below deck. Two other prisoners, besides those from my ship, we already here, and the state they were in made me cold.
They were half dead, their skin pale and drained, eyes dark and lifeless as stared at us coming in. One laughed coldly.
"Fresh meat for the mistress."
The pair of them chuckled together as the pirates locked the gate behind us, and disappeared.
Hours later we were given food; some fresh meat and water. In protest, we refused to eat, but our two unknown companions urged us to feed.
"You will die quicker if you do not." They informed us. "Better to enjoy the small pleasures they give us."
So we ate, and waited.
No sign to the passing of time, some of us fell asleep. I, however, was unable to drift off, and so stayed awake until the door that led to the deck opened.
In she stepped, her captain at her side, both conversing quietly as they stepped towards us. Seeing I was awake, they fell silent.
Her eyes roamed over us all, like a farmer surveying the cattle. Finally, her eyes rested on a lad as young as myself. "Him." She gestured towards the boy, and the Captain unlocked the door.
Even if they had all been awake, I doubted we would have done anything. We had no weapons on us, we were not a strong group, and they both looked powerful enough to stop anything we may try.
The lad sleepily asked what was happening, and the Captain replied simply. "You've been chosen kid." He half carried him, and they disappeared up the steps. The woman glanced at me, lifted a finger to her lips and winked, before following them.
I remember them bringing him back a while later. Some of the others were awake by now and they stared in shock as another pirate carried the boy, unconscious, into the cell. Gently he laid him down and I spotted the grins on the faces of the two unknown prisoners.
"What have they done to him?" One of the men asked, studying the boy. His face was now pale, his body limp.
"She's fed!" One of the pair crackled, as the pirate locked the cage and left us. "The mistress has fed."
That crackle, that inhuman laugh still echoes in my head even now, along with her voice.
I later found out that they had been there for too long, driven mad by the imprisonment and the ritual of 'the mistress.' As we stared at them, I hoped none of us would end up like them.
This ritual carried on for weeks after. I saw men around me grow weak, and wondered why I was the only one not taken for this 'honour'. It wasn't long before they stopped bringing them back.
Finally, it was just me and the two other prisoners left.
When she next came to the cell, she gestured at one of them. "Guess I'll have to take you again boys."
"Please Calista," one of them begged "let us go!"
"Oh no. I'm not going to do that." She held a bar in each hand, placing her face against them. "How could I? You taste so sweet."
"Taste?" For the first time I spoke to her. "You have eaten my companions?"
"Eaten?" She laughed. "Robert, have you not worked it out yet?" She grinned at me, eyes alight.
"How do you know my name?"
"She knows everything." One of the remaining men hissed. "Why did you leave us so long?" He asked, hands roaming over each other, squeezing fingers in turn.
"Because madness always makes blood taste slightly bitter." She replied, slipping her arms through the bars and leaning forward. "But I have nothing left now, do I?"
"What about him?" The other cried, pointing an accusing finger at me. "Drink from him! For the love of God drink from him!" He was shouting now, and behind her I saw her Captain step slightly out of the darkness, a hand resting on his sword.
"I have other plans for him." She waved a dismissive hand, and the Captain's hand fell back. "Now, which one of you tonight?"
She picked one, and I could hear his screams and cries of 'NO' all the way up the stairs.
For a week this went on; her arriving at the cell, tantalizing, seductive and cruel as she deliberated which one to have. The chosen male's screams as he was dragged out. Then, one night after the other, they were not brought back.
The following evening, and yet another group of prisoners were brought in. As she surveyed the pirates pushing them into the cell, she pointed at me.
They must have seen the fear in my face, for the fear in their own doubled. I gulped, was grabbed by one of the pirates and dragged out.
She walked ahead of us, taking long steps, until we came to her room.
"Wait for me here." She commanded turning and walking away.
I was locked in the room and had about an hour to survey my surroundings.
The walls were covered in a variety of things; maps behind glass, in gold frames, a wall of hand drawn maps and notes, lines connecting various places but no clue to what these lines meant. Along with these there were the paintings; an image of her in full pirate attire, standing beside the Captain. Another image that looked similar to her, though I could not be sure for it was so different – it was of a lady with curly locks and the same deep blue eyes. And by lady, I mean lady. As in posh, posed and graceful, no reflection of the cruel, cold killer I had seen so far.
I dare not sit on the bed, neatly made in the centre of the back wall. It was above this bed the painting of the lady sat, opposite it the pirate. Instead I sat at the desk beneath the maps and notes, adjusting the simple wooden chair so I could keep an eye on the door.
Not long passed before it opened and in she stepped, closing it swiftly behind her. A second later she stood in front of me. Out stretched a pretty hand, fingers covered in diamond and ruby rings. She placed two of this fingers beneath my chin, tilting my head back so I was forced to stare into those eyes.
"It is you, isn't it?" I whispered, watching the slow smile creep across her face. She nodded.
"The lady? A long time ago." She moved away from me, standing instead at the foot of the bed and looking intently at the image. "A lifetime ago. I hated my life."
"What? You hated the jewels, servants and rich food?"
Over her shoulder, she turned and looked at me, a twinkle in those eyes. Her lips curled back and I could not help but let out a gasp at the sight of two protruding fangs. "Not much changes, does it?" She asked, turning her full body now to face me. "But then, I have earned these." She lifted her hand, the back toward me, and wriggled her fingers.
She stayed silent for a moment, staring hard at me.
"You think you are going to die soon."
"I saw what happened to my crewmates. To those two men."
"Like you cared for those two." She rolled her eyes. "Did you even ask their names?"
Shamefaced, I looked downwards. She let out a sigh, crossed towards me and knelt in front. She placed her hands on my knees.
"Matthew and Benjamin were fools; they sought out an old man in a tavern and questioned him about me. They then killed him. Having done so, they found another character in the old man's tale. An old friend of mine. Edward revealed himself, but refused to turn them into what we were. Do you know what that is?"
I dare not say it, and she knew.
"I drank the blood of your crewmates. I could go on but you know exactly what I am. Those two came looking for me to turn them. They were not worthy. They were driven mad, not by my drinking their blood but by the idea that they were not to live forever."
"And why are you telling me this?" I have to admit, I thought she was going to change me, turn me into a creature like her.
"Because, though you will not die tonight, you will die a mortal death." She stood then, took my hands and pulled me to my feet. "Some souls will seek you out; you will be a legend Robert Smythe. The one who escaped the devil's mistress." She gave me another smile, before leaning forward and planting the softest of kisses on my lips.
Her hand was on my cheek, and I remember thinking about how cold she was, how frozen those lips were.
Then she pulled away before I had time to warm them.
She returned to her spot by the bed, staring at the image of the lady. "They seek me out Robert, like some treasure." She folded her arms, her shoulders stiffening. "I do not like the ones who look for me. Of course, feel free to send some my way, but not all of them."
"You're placing the curse on me." I replied. "Not the full effect, but...."
"Being sought out?" Even with her back to me, I could feel her smiling. "Yes. They will look for you as hungrily as they look for treasure. But unlike myself, you do not have a Captain that guards you."
"You strike fear into men's hearts, you can control us like puppets. Of course he protects you."
"Guards, Robert. There is a difference. I can protect myself."
"How will I know where to send them?"
iYou'll know. /i
I staggered towards the door as her voice filled my head. She let out a chuckle. I could feel my heart racing in fear of this.
"There is a boat waiting for you." She gestured towards the door and I stepped out, leaving her there to face the image.
"Will you send me to her?" The boy asked, leaning eagerly forward and studying the old man's face intently. His eyes were wide, and Robert let out a sigh.
"I've told ye my story, ye surely must know what she is?"
The boy nodded.
"Let me guess, ye seek the immortal life?"
"No sir." The boy shrank back. "I told the truth sir. I want to see her up close. And you know where she is, do you not?"
"Ye think ye will survive lad? Either come out like me, or hope she'll pick ye to feed from?"
"Neither." The boy lifted his head slightly. "I know I will not be locked up."
Robert let out a sigh, the sound coming through his teeth like a hiss. "The Captain, before I left, said every seventh hunter was to be sent his way. The seventh sits before me."
"Really?" He brightened up, as if all his wishes had come true. "I'm the seventh?"
So, Robert withdrew a map from his pocket, watched as the boy copied it out, marking with a x the area Robert pointed out. "She's there boy."
"Thank you." He bowed his head, stood up and walked towards the door.
"Before ye go lad," Robert called, leaning back in his seat and studying the boy, another one sent to his death, "what makes ye so sure ye will not join my crewmates in death? Or in the cell even? Every boy before ye has."
The boy stopped, looked over his shoulder and curled his top lip back, revealing two long fangs. "She's an old friend of mine."
As the door closed, Robert could not help but let out a small chuckle. He stood and walked to the window, looking out at the sea where in the distance, he could see a ship moored.
iYou sent Edward on a wild goose chase? /i
The voice, as it had many times before, echoed in his head. He smiled to himself.
iYou knew, didn't you? You sly old dog. /i He smiled at the humour he could hear in her voice. He could still picture her smile, the twinkle in her eyes.
"Please," he muttered. "You want him Calista? I know you'll find him."
After all, he never sent the boys to her; yet she always claimed them. He did exactly as she told him.
The ways of the walking dead, he thought, were way beyond him.